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North Korea severs all ties with South

South Korea has launched psychological warfare over the sinking of its ship, while North Korea has said its troops are braced for war. The rising tension on the peninsula is worrying many. (May 25)

In a timely coincidence, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived Wednesday morning in Seoul for brief, previously scheduled meetings with South Korean leaders.

The Obama administration has largely taken a hands-off approach toward North Korea, following the collapse of disarmament talks in the waning months of the Bush administration and Pyongyang's second nuclear test in 2009. The administration appointed a part-time special envoy -- who continued as dean of a foreign affairs school -- and refused to make any concessions to North Korea for its return to the talks.

North Korea has repeatedly denied any role in the Cheonan's sinking and warned that any attempt to punish it could lead to "all-out war." Such threats are a rhetorical commonplace for North Korea, but its announcement Tuesday included specifics that seem certain to hurt the North's imploding economy far more than they will hurt the affluent South, one of the world's major exporting nations.

The State Department characterized the North's announcement as "odd," given the country's isolation. Spokesman Crowley said he "can't imagine a step that is less in the long-term interest of the North Korean people."

Still, there is a regime-preserving method to behavior that from the outside can seem like self-immolating madness. Myers, the North Korean specialist who has spent eight years studying the dictatorship's internal propaganda, said he has found that confrontations with the outside world are manipulated by Kim to legitimize his near-absolute authority and explain away chronic poverty. This is particularly true, he said, when conflicts involve the United States.

That appears to be happening again. Shortly after South Korea and the United States blamed the North last week for sinking the Cheonan, Kim's government told the Korean People's Army to be ready for combat, according to a dissident group in South Korea. The message -- delivered in a statement by O Kuk Ryol, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission -- was broadcast over a cable radio network that is heard in households across North Korea, said the Web site of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group run by defectors.

The defectors' Web site was among the first to report last year on North Korea's bungled attempt to revalue its currency. South Korea's currency and stock market fell sharply Tuesday after reports of the North Korean broadcast.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington and special correspondent Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.

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