Execution in North Korea underscores tough stance on influence from South

Senior official Choe Sung-chol was reportedly put to death for accepting bribes.

The openness of high-ranking North Koreans to take bribes may account for the reported execution of a senior official once responsible for the North’s relations with the South.

South Korean analysts offer that explanation for the elimination of Choe Sung-chol, the senior North Korean responsible for implementing North-South reconciliation until last year.

Mr. Choe had frequent dealings with Hyundai Asan, the company that built the Kaesong industrial complex 40 miles north of Seoul just across the demilitarized zone between the two countries. He reportedly had often visited the complex and knew the managers of many of the 100 South Korean companies that operate factories there.

'Invasion of the stomach'

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il is believed to have become increasingly wary of South Korean influence as filtered through Kaesong.

The 40,000 workers in the complex, have grown accustomed to South Korean “choco-pies,” instant coffee, cakes, and soups that South Korean managers serve with their lunches. Quite often they give them to friends and family members – an “invasion of the stomach,” say South Korean managers, that contributes to the image of South Korea as a rich society in contrast to their own poverty-stricken surroundings.

Choe Sung-chul’s crime was bribery and corruption,” says Paik Sung-joo, director of the Korean Institute of Defense Analyses. “Now North Korea is afraid the North Korean workers and their families are corrupted.”

North-South relations worsen

Reports of Choe’s execution have surfaced in Seoul amid worsening North-South relations. The North has scrapped all contracts governing South Korean factories. It is demanding a sharp increase in funds paid for North Korean workers and steeper payments for leasing land and operating factories there.

The controversy over Kaesong is the latest sign of North Korean anger over the policies of South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung Bak. He upset North Korea shortly after his inauguration in February 2008 by refusing to approve shipments of rice and fertilizer to North Korea, as granted by his two predecessors, unless the North agreed to full “verification” of all it said it was doing to abandon its nuclear program.

The confrontation has deepened in the wake of North Korea’s test of a long-range Taepodong-2 missile on April 5. North Korea has vowed “never” to return to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons in view of the United Nations Security Council’s condemnation of the test.

It has also denounced South Korea’s “firm and clear” intention to join the United States-backed Proliferation Security Initiative, a program to block shipment of nuclear materiel and technology, as “an act of war.”

Blocking South Korean culture

Choe was serving as chief vice director of the unification front department of the Workers’ Party when South Korean officials last saw or heard from him more than a year ago. Reports at the time said he was doing penance as a worker on a chicken farm.

According to the South Korean media, North Korean officials blamed Choe for making the North “dependent on South Korea.” But Ha Tae Keung, president of NK Open Radio, which broadcasts news into North Korea from Seoul, places little credence in these accounts.

The influence of South Korean culture and industry comes mainly via China, he notes, through shipments of DVDs, CDs, and other products, much of it in illegal trade across the Yalu and Tumen river borders.

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