N. Korea Expels 11 of South's Officials in Reaction to Rising Criticism

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak: North needs to improve.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak: North needs to improve. (Jo Yong-hak - AP)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 28, 2008

TOKYO, March 27 -- North Korea expelled 11 South Korean officials from its territory on Thursday, a response to the South's increasingly tough criticism of its neighbor's record on human rights and nuclear proliferation.

For a month, the new president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, has been warning North Korea to clean up its act on human rights and move quickly to get rid of nuclear weapons -- if it wants more food aid and economic help from the South.

Communist North Korea, though destitute and on the brink of a severe food shortage, made it abundantly clear that it does not want to be lectured to, expelling the 11 officials from the Kaesong industrial zone. One of the few economic bright spots in the North, the zone is a booming factory park just north of the border where about 24,000 North Koreans work for 69 South Korean companies.

After an emergency meeting in Seoul, presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said the expulsion "was a very regrettable incident that could damage progress of economic cooperation between the South and the North."

The North should be more predictable in its behavior toward the South, Lee said. But he also made it clear that South Korea does not want the situation to deteriorate.

While the 11 South Korean officials left the Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation Consultation Office in Kaesong on Thursday, five civilians remained. Officials in Seoul said operations in the industrial zone would continue.

Still, the expulsion is the strongest signal since Lee Myung-bak took office in late February that relations between the two Koreas are likely to be far more truculent than they have been since 2000.

Lee's predecessors, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung, presided over an era of dramatically improved ties with the North. The two leaders avoided almost any criticism of the Stalinist dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, while shipping it large amounts of food and fertilizer without preconditions.

North Korea's leader, in return, invited both presidents to summits in Pyongyang, the North's capital.

Lee's government, in contrast, has said it will hold up economic aid until there is real progress on the North's promises to tell the world about the full extent of its nuclear programs.

As for the Kaesong industrial zone, the South Korean minister in charge of relations with the North, Kim Ha-joong, said last week that it would be difficult to expand it unless there is substantial movement on the nuclear issue.

The expulsions appeared to be a direct response to that comment. In its rejoinder on Thursday, the South Korean government seemed to be trying to strike a tone that was both calming and tough.

It noted that the Kaesong zone was in no danger of being closed down. But Vice Unification Minister Hong Yang-ho told reporters that the government "will not come up with any 'carrot' measures to appease the North in relation to the incident, and has no intention to offer anything to the North," according to the Yonhap news agency.

There are other reasons for North Korea to be annoyed with Lee's government.

The South, in a break from the past, has said it will support a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution this week that criticizes the North for human rights abuses and calls for a U.N. investigation.

The U.S. State Department says North Korea is one of the world's worst violators of human rights. It runs a network of camps that hold about 200,000 political prisoners, according to U.S. government reports.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company