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North Korea

Pyongyang continues to ratchet up tensions

Vociferous Pyongyang has issued a number of threats to the US and South Korea of late. But Kim Jong Un must realize the only possible outcome of a conflict would be the annihilation of his regime.

In recent days, North Korea has used its state media to elevate tensions to levels that have rarely been seen on the peninsula since an armistice was signed in 1953 to suspend the three-year Korean War.

Concerns rose again when Pyongyang announced Friday that it is in a "state of war" with the South, a statement which was preceded by the North severing a military hotline between the two sides, annulling a non-aggression treaty and vowing to push ahead with its development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles.

The threats emanating from the regime of the youthful and inexperienced Kim Jong Un have not had the desired effect in Seoul or Washington, however, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Monday made her displeasure at the daily threats clear in a policy briefing at the ministry of defence in Seoul and ordered the military to not hesitate to reply to an attack.

'Respond powerfully'

"The reason for the military's existence is to protect the country and the people from threats," Park told senior military officials and journalists. "If any provocations happen against our people and our country, it should respond powerfully in the early stages without having any political considerations.

"As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, I will trust the military's judgment on abrupt and surprise provocations by North Korea," Park added. "Please carry out your duty of guarding the safety of the people without being distracted at all."

The firm attitude demonstrated by the South Korean government has been supported by Washington, with F22 Raptor jets based in Japan taking part in joint military exercises over South Korea on Monday.

Kaesong complex runs normally despite hotline closure
Vehicles heading for the inter-Korean industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong pass through an immigration office in Paju, north of Seoul, on March 28, 2013, just like on a typical day. (Photo: Yonhap/2013-03-28 11:01:57/)

Pyongyang has threatened to close the Kaesong industrial park

Similar exercises last week involving B-52 and B-2 bombers, both of which are capable of delivering a nuclear payload, triggered anger in North Korea, but analysts believe the colourful rhetoric emerging from Pyongyang is still bluster.

'Sea of fire'

"We are all used to seeing the North make aggressive statements, such as that they're going to turn South Korea 'into a sea of fire' and so on, but it's partly because they want the attention and they need money," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University.

"In part, I think it's because the little boy that is running the country wants to show his people that he is worthy of the mantle of his murderous father and grandfather, but I don't think that even he is stupid enough to think North Korea could win a war with South Korea and its ally, the US."

The North has, nevertheless, crossed the line in the past, notably with the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010, which resulted in 46 deaths, and the shelling of an island off the west coast of the peninsula eight months later in which four people died.

On both those occasions, South Korea restrained its military from retaliating, but there seems to be far more resolve in Seoul not to let any provocations go unpunished. And Pyongyang knows that, Dujarric believes.

"I think we will see a lot more noise, but North Korea has to know how weak it is in comparison to the South and the US," he said. "If they did go ahead and pull the trigger, then it would be revisited on them 100-fold."

Negotiating table

The aim of the tough-talking and the development of nuclear weapons is to force the other key powers with a presence in Northeast Asia - China, Russia, the US, Japan and South Korea - back to the negotiating table and to win concessions in the form of aid.

epa03644057 A picture released by the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 29 March 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convening an urgent operation meeting at 0:30 am on 29 March 2013 at an undisclosed location, in which he ordered strategic rocket forces to be on standby to strike US and South Korean targets at any time. (Photo: EPA/KCNA SOUTH KOREA)

Kim Jong Un has ordered rockets to be put on standby to attack the US and South Korea

The tactic has paid off in the past, he pointed out, with the international community believing the promises of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, and providing the technology for a light water nuclear reactor to provide energy. North Korea soon reneged on its promises, however, and monitors from the International Atomic Energy Commission were ejected from the site and the cycle of promises made and promises broken recommenced.

And while the rest of the world has got wise to North Korea's tactics, South Korea and Washington are likely to consider any option to avoid war and could consider a new round of assistance as a form of "protection money," according to Dujarric.

To shimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an expert on North Korean affairs, agreed it was unlikely that Pyongyang would risk an attack outside its borders and said the posturing was directed primarily at a domestic audience.

"The situation inside North Korea is still very unstable," he told DW. "The military needs tension with South Korea and the US to justify themselves and Kim is terrified of a coup led by the military.

'Clever and wicked old soldiers'

"You have to remember that these are very clever and wicked old soldiers and Kim is just a 29-year-old given the task of leading the country," Shigemura added.

North Korea bangs war drums

The preparations being taken by South Korea and the US are sensible, in the circumstances, according to Shigemura, but are being deliberately mis-interpreted by the North as an imminent threat of war simply to continue the "military-first" national policy and to rally a hungry and largely uninformed public behind the regime.

Analysts believe that the harsh words will gradually cool and that the peninsula will return to a semblance of awkward normality - but the longer-term outlook for Pyongyang remains bleak, they believe.

Bankrupt, without the ability to make the most of the natural resources that undoubtedly exist, determined to spend more money on high-living amongst the elite and developing a handful of nuclear devices and missiles, it is only a matter of time before the regime implodes, experts say.

"It could be next year, it could be 20 years from now," Dujarric said with a shrug. "But it will happen - and it will be a very different sort of challenge to the region when it does happen."

DW.DE

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