South-North tensions spike after attack on US ambassador

South-North tensions spike after attack on US ambassador
Ambassador Mark Lippert.

Inter-Korean tensions escalated over the weekend as Seoul's probe into Thursday's knife attack on the top US envoy here zeroed in on the assailant's possible ties to the North, while Pyongyang praised the attack.

Observers expressed concerns that the attack on Ambassador Mark Lippert would negatively affect cross-border relations as Seoul would find it difficult to push for improved ties with Pyongyang after the communist regime called the attack a "deserved punishment and act of justice."

The incident is also likely to restrain the activities of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, a major entity to promote cross-border exchanges and the organizer of the morning seminar at which Lippert was attacked, further darkening the prospect of a thaw in inter-Korean relations, the observers said.

Upping its offensive against the South, the North criticised Seoul for trying to link the attacker, Kim Ki-jong, to the North, arguing that Seoul was shifting the blame for the knife attack to "patriotic pro-unification forces."

"(Seoul's probe) stems from Seoul's vicious attempt to stamp out pro-unification, patriotic forces and adhere more to its anti-North Korea campaign," said the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

South Korean police are currently looking into the possibility that Kim violated the National Security Law by possessing books and materials that are pro-North or promote the activities of antistate organisations.

The North's statement also called Kim's attack a "righteous act" and a "reflection of public sentiment in the South," stressing that the incident would not have occurred if the ongoing South Korea-US military drills had been cancelled

"Based on Kim's records of visiting the North, (Seoul) is turning him into a pro-North Korean figure, whipping up anti-North Korea sentiment and insulting the supreme dignity (the North Korean leader)," the statement said.

Seoul officials have upbraided Pyongyang for making such remarks, saying that the isolated regime was distorting the facts about the incident, and that it was deplorable for the North to condone such an act of violence.

Pyongyang's rhetoric also promoted an angry response from the US amid bilateral friction over a series of issues including the North's alleged cyberattack on Sony Pictures and its continued pursuit of nuclear arms.

US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters last Friday that the North's remarks about the knife attack were "outrageously callous but unfortunately consistent with the nature of the regime and its rhetoric."

The rising tension between Washington and Pyongyang is expected to pose a hurdle to Seoul's push for dialogue and improved ties with the North.

In consideration of the deteriorating anti-Pyongyang sentiment both in the South and the US, Seoul may not be able to take bold steps to boost co-operation with the North, analysts said.

The KCRC that has played a vital role to foster cross-border co-operation is in a state of crisis with its leader Hong Sa-deok having stepped down to take responsibility for the attack.

The council had planned to push for a series of inter-Korean cooperative projects to mark the 15th anniversary of the June 15 inter-Korean declaration announced after a summit in 2000 between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

But the projects could lose traction after the attack.

The knife attack also triggered tension between the rival parties as the ruling Saenuri Party stepped up its ideological offensive against pro-North Korea activities and the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy cautioned against politicizing the attack.

Saenuri spokesperson Park Dae-chul said its liberal rival should write a "letter of repentance" for having sided with pro-North Korean forces in the past.

"The opposition party has sided with pro-North Korean (forces on many occasions), not just yesterday or today. Thus there are things the opposition needs to explain (to the public) about the unprecedented terror (attack)," he said.

"It is about time for the opposition to write a letter of repentance."

The NPAD argued that the ruling party was using the attack as a pretext to "drive out pro-North Koreans."

"The government and the ruling party are making claims as if the attack was an organised crime by pro-North Korean people, and this shows that the party was trying to use the incident politically," said NPAD spokesperson Kim Sung-soo in a media interview.

"Such an ideological offensive would not be helpful for improving the South Korea-US alliance."

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