With Obama in White House, North Korea Steps Up Big Talk

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

SEOUL, Feb. 3 -- Stinging insults, sudden cancellations of military agreements and dark warnings of "unavoidable" war are spilling out of North Korea almost daily. On Tuesday, news media reports here and in Japan said North Korea is preparing to test-launch a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The target for much of this bluster and saber rattling is the government of South Korea, which has stopped giving its heavily armed communist neighbor unconditional aid.

Last year, the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, ended his predecessors' "sunshine policy" toward the isolated North. For nearly a decade, that policy had soothed nerves on the Korean Peninsula by giving the truculent but poor government of Kim Jong Il large amounts of food, fertilizer and trade concessions, all without conditions and without asking questions about nuclear weapons, missile proliferation or human rights abuses.

Chronically hungry North Korea has received virtually no food or fertilizer from Lee's government -- and nerves seem to be rubbed raw, at least within the North Korean leadership.

It has called Lee a "traitor," a "sycophant of the United States" and the leader of a "fascist" state. It declared last week that it was junking all military and political agreements with the South. It warned Sunday, in the North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper, that tension may lead to an "unavoidable military conflict and a war."

North Korea has a history of diplomacy by means of noisy, over-the-top brinkmanship. It exploded a small nuclear device in the fall of 2006 and the next year began to disable its main nuclear plant in return for food, fuel and a reduction in diplomatic sanctions.

The current round of foot-stomping in Pyongyang may be a similar kind of performance art, analysts here say.

"This is quite consistent with North Korea's past track record of creating crisis to attract attention," said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

So far, South Korea seems to be taking it that way.

In recent days, Lee has played down the North's rhetoric, calling it "not unusual."

South Korea's navy has been on alert along the country's western coast, where North Korea has said it would no longer recognize a maritime border. But Seoul has not detected unusual movements by the North Korean military.

The real audience for the North's heightened belligerence may be the Obama administration.

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