S. Korea has reason to keep key projects with N. Korea

Sunday, October 22, 2006

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea is still sending tourists to a mountain resort in the North and maintaining a joint economic zone, despite pressure to cancel the projects after Pyongyang's nuclear test.

The country has its reasons for refusing to shut down key projects that help keep Kim Jong Il's regime afloat, including competition with China for influence over the impoverished nation.

South Korea and China together account for two-thirds of overseas trade for the communist North, and South Korea hopes to one day reunite the two Koreas.

The United States has scoffed at the tourism venture at the North's majestic Diamond Mountain resort, saying the project simply hands money to the North Korean government. Washington also has questioned labor practices in a joint economic zone where North Korean workers provide cheap labor for South Korean firms.

But Seoul has been reluctant to inflame North Korea as it pursues its policy of reconciliation that has led to unprecedented cooperation between the two countries that share a peninsula.

Totally cutting off the joint projects also would mean Seoul would lose influence in the North, leaving the isolated nation wide open for China -- the North's No. 1 trade partner and a key source of aid.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she will not presume to tell South Korea or China how to enforce U.N. sanctions imposed against North Korea after the Oct. 9 underground blast.

But she has called on all nations to cooperate and pointedly noted in a South Korean TV interview Friday that the North "set off a nuclear weapons test right here in South Korea's back yard."

"It is important to use whatever leverage a country feels that it can use to get the North Koreans to make the right choice" to rejoin arms talks and disarm, Rice told KBS in Seoul.

South Korea is keen to maintain stability and not let its unpredictable neighbor spoil its hard-won prosperity built from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War. Today's South Korea is a high-technology mecca and cultural trendsetter for Asia, proudly proclaiming itself as "Dynamic Korea" in its main tourism slogan.

In the wake of the North's first-ever nuclear test, Seoul has faced new calls to cancel the landmark reconciliation projects in line with the U.N. sanctions.

On Tuesday, the U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, Jay Lefkowitz, warned that unmonitored assistance to the North could prop up a "criminal regime."

China has made increasing economic inroads in the North in recent years, and South Korea has expressed concern that North Korea could become a de-facto Chinese province.

Chinese goods are the dominant products in what passes for "markets" in North Korea, and Chinese tourists visit regularly.

A state-supported Chinese think tank has claimed that two ancient Korean kingdoms were actually Chinese, including the Koguryo dynasty that reigned from 37 B.C. to A.D. 668 in an area that stretched from the Korean peninsula to Manchuria in northeast China. Koguryo is viewed by Koreans as the origin of their nation, and its name forms the root of today's "Korea."

China had its fingers in Korean politics going back centuries, under the tributary system in place across east Asia.

The idea that China is staging a shadow campaign to maneuver for position after a North Korean collapse rattles intensely nationalistic Koreans, who have seen their tiny peninsula survive as a nation despite being surrounded by massive powers. They also keenly remember decades of Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, which ended with the heart-rending division of the peninsula.

Despite appearing to vacillate in the face of U.S. demands to comply with U.N. sanctions, Seoul's reluctance to back out of its projects with North Korea could be a way of signaling strength -- and ensuring that Koreans will have a land to call their own for centuries more.

Burt Herman is chief of bureau in Korea for The Associated Press.

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