S. Korea brushes off North calls to halt insults, scrap drills


South Korea on Friday scoffed at North Korea’s proposal for a mutual moratorium on verbal mud-slinging, and rejected Pyongyang’s renewed calls to cancel planned military drills with the United States.

“We don’t slander North Korea, so there is nothing for us to stop,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui-do told reporters.

He was responding to a surprise proposal late Thursday by the North’s top military body, the National Defence Commission (NDC), that the two rivals halt “all acts of provoking and slandering” on Jan. 30 — the eve of the Lunar New Year.

The Unification Ministry argued that the offer was moot, as the only provocation and slander come from North Korea.

Despite North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech urging greater cooperation, Pyongyang has “continued to slander and threaten us,” spokesman Kim said.

The NDC also renewed calls for South Korea to scrap its annual joint military exercises with the United States, which Pyongyang routinely condemns as provocative rehearsals for invasion.

But Kim stressed that the drills — slated to begin at the end of February — would go ahead as planned.

“Our military exercises are routine defensive drills, like those conducted by all sovereign states,” Kim said.

Last year’s exercises were held in the wake of North Korea’s third and largest nuclear test, and prompted months of escalated military tensions that saw Pyongyang issue apocalyptic threats of nuclear war against the South and the United States.

This time around, North Korea appears to be adopting a carrot-and-stick policy, one day warning of “an unimaginable holocaust” if the drills go ahead and the next offering an end to cross-border insults.

The Unification Ministry suggested the North stop complaining about the “legitimate” exercises and focus instead on taking steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Kim also reiterated South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s recent call for the “humanitarian” resumption over the Lunar New Year of reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The North has rejected Park’s proposal, citing the planned South-U.S. exercises as a major barrier.

Analysts said both sides were jockeying for the moral high ground ahead of what is gearing up to be a re-run of last year’s display of military brinksmanship, which triggered global concerns of a full-scale conflict.

“They both want to be able to accuse the other of bearing responsibility for any surge in tensions,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of Korean Studies in Seoul. “This is a clear snapshot of the current confrontational situation on the Korean peninsula,” Yang said.

Thursday’s NDC statement specifically proposed steps to ease tensions around the disputed maritime border, the scene of naval clashes in the past close to islands on both sides that bristle with heavy artillery batteries.

The commission said North Korea was willing to make the “first” step in this regard, but offered no details of what measures it envisaged.

It was also unclear how the North would define “slander,” although it has in the past condemned South Korean media coverage of North Korea as offensive and mendacious.

It also wants the South Korean authorities to ban North Korean defectors and rights activists from launching anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border by balloon.

At one such launch event earlier this week, activists attached small transistor radios and 1,500 USB flash drives loaded with the Korean-language version of the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia to the leaflet-laden balloon packages.

Kim Jong Un is believed to be particularly concerned by the technology-boosted erosion — by unauthorized DVDs, MP3 players and USB memory sticks — of the information barrier the regime has long maintained between its people and the outside world.