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Nuclear North Korea: Bluff or 'Crisis From Hell' ?

In Japan, the news came the day after an emotionally charged World Cup qualifying match between Japan and North Korea, which Japan won. Japanese officials are calm, reported the Mainichi Daily News. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Tokyo would continue to try to persuade Pyongyang to take part in the six-nation talks.

"As we have done so far, we will try to resume the talks in cooperation with other countries," Koizumi said.

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"The key North Korea question is how and when -- not whether -- this ghastly failed regime will cease to be," says Aidan Foster-Carter, a North Korea specialist writing for the independent Asia Times in Hong Kong.

The six-party talks, Foster-Carter says, create an "illusion" progress which suited all the countries involved. The Bush administration "could pretend it was engaging North Korea, when in fact it is internally divided -- and preoccupied elsewhere"

The issue takes on added urgency when one considers the "murky" state of North Korea's internal politics.

"Last year North Korean leader Kim [Jong-Il] purged his brother-in-law and ex-right-hand man Chang Song-taek. Three sons vie to be dauphin, with rumors of murder plots (in Vienna, even). This struggle may be over policy -- hawks versus doves -- or simply power. Either way, stability can no longer be taken for granted. "

Foster-Carter also recalls the history of war in Korea. A century ago, China, Japan and Russia fought two wars for control of the Korean kingdom. Another war followed the superpowers' partition of the peninsula in 1945.

"Now, as another Korean dynasty looks moribund, it is vital that all concerned cooperate to prevent a tough transition becoming a third cataclysm," says Foster-Carter. "That is the real issue in Korea now; not just nukes, still less the fate of a hexagonal table in Beijing."

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