Inter-Korean tension feared to last for months: experts

SEOUL, May 2 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is likely to continue its verbal attacks on Seoul until late summer when a joint South Korea-U.S. military drill is planned, experts said Friday, suggesting protracted inter-Korean tension down the road.

Inter-Korean relations have slipped into a confrontational mode since March, especially after Seoul joined the international call, issued during a nuclear security summit in The Hague, on the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.

President Park Geun-hye's declaration of her push to unite the divided nations in March further aggravated cross-border tension, with Pyongyang accusing Seoul of attempting to achieve unification by absorption.

North Korea, through its state media in late March and April, called Park "an eccentric old spinster" and criticized Seoul for its incapability shown during botched rescue efforts in a recent deadly ferry sinking off the southwest coast.

The level of the North's recent slander toward the South, including a stream of invective against Park, was seen as being the most scathing since the Park administration took power early last year.

It was a stark turnaround from February, when the two Koreas jointly hosted reunions of families separated across the inter-Korean border and agreed to halt slander against one another during their rare high-level talks.

A government official said that "North Korea's criticism of South Korea seems to be harsher than the level during the Lee Myung-bak administration."

Pyongyang had taken a confrontational stance almost throughout the five-year term of former President Lee, who held a hard-line policy on the communist country.

"It appears difficult to form a dialogue-friendly mood for a long time," the official said.

North Korea watchers also said that the North's ratcheting-up of confrontation may be aimed at increasing pressure on Seoul to get more economic incentives.

Despite North Korea's consistent calls, Seoul has been withholding the resumption of inter-Korean tour business at Mount Kumgang and refusing to remove economic sanctions slapped on Pyongyang for its past provocations.

Experts added that Pyongyang's recent tension escalation may be aimed at inducing Seoul to change its attitude on its North Korea policy, including on anti-Pyongyang sanctions. They also said the confrontational mode may likely continue into late summer.

"North Korea may have concluded that it's not the right time to seek to mend fences with South Korea amid grim conditions including the nuclear weapons issue, which is at a stalemate," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "The North suggested in its recent move that the ball is in South Korea's court to change its attitde in order to solve inter-Korean problems."

"The current tension may continue into the summer given that the North has recently mentioned the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG)," said Jang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification at Seoul National University.

This year's UFG, an annual joint combat readiness exercise between Seoul and Washington, is slated for August and September.

Other experts said the current cross-border tension, if extended much further, is feared to derail President Park's much-trumpeted push to seek unification with Pyongyang, as well as her plan to mend ties through her signature trust-building plan.

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