North Korea Test-Fires Missiles In Ongoing Show of Truculence

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 29, 2008

TOKYO, March 28 -- North Korea test-fired a volley of missiles into the sea Friday and warned that it may stop disabling its nuclear facilities unless the United States drops its demands for more details about the North's nuclear arsenal.

The missile launch and the combative warning -- which accused the Bush administration of "persistently trying to cook up fictions" -- came one day after the North expelled 11 South Korean officials from an industrial park north of the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.

South Korea downplayed the missile firings, characterizing them as part of a routine military exercise. "We believe the North does not want a deterioration of relations between South and North," a government spokesman said Friday.

Still, three truculent actions in two days suggest that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, after a relatively placid stretch of cooperative diplomacy, is feeling increasingly peeved by demands from the United States and South Korea.

The Bush administration is refusing to lift diplomatic sanctions against the North until it explains its suspected uranium enrichment program and details any efforts to sell nuclear technology to Syria or other countries.

On Friday, the North again insisted that it has "never enriched uranium nor rendered cooperation to any other country."

South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, who was sworn in last month, is taking a much tougher line than his predecessors in dealing with the North. His government has said it will condition food aid and economic assistance on improvements in human rights and on timely dismantlement of the North's nuclear program.

The flare-up in tension on the Korean Peninsula comes at an unusually stressful time for Kim's government, with the North facing dire food shortages due to weather-related crop failures, the soaring world price of food and reductions in aid from South Korea, China and the U.N. World Food Program.

The shortages are projected to peak late this summer, when China, the North's closest ally and primary benefactor, will be hosting the Olympic Games.

Analysts say that China expects Kim's government not to allow disturbances inside North Korea that could send hungry refugees spilling across the border into China during the Aug. 8-24 Games.

For reasons that have not been explained publicly, China has been supplying less food assistance to North Korea in the past three years, according to figures compiled by the World Food Program. This year, in order to keep more food for its own population, China has also imposed tariffs on food exports. Combined with much higher grain prices on world markets, the 22 percent tariff has substantially reduced the impoverished North's capacity to buy food from any source.

Perhaps more important, South Korea has this spring delayed delivery of the free fertilizer that the North has come to rely on. As a result, analysts say, this year's harvest in the North will almost certainly fall far short of what is needed to feed the country next winter.

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