North Korea cranks up the rhetoric


SEOUL — “Noisy” is a good word to describe the Korean peninsula this week, as Pyongyang continued to cook up new ways to bother its longtime enemy to the south.

Angry works, too. So does shrill.

Today, a United Nations official said that North Korea has given notice of its plans to launch a satellite next month. 

Pyongyang had been saying for weeks that it will launch a communications satellite for peaceful purposes — a claim refuted by those outside North Korea, who believe the satellite is a long-range missile with a reach as long as 6,700 kilometers, or 4163 miles. Such a missile could put parts of Alaska and Hawaii in danger. Washington and Seoul have protested such a launch. 

Before the news of the impending satellite launch, North Korea was already making noise about military drills conducted  by the United States and South Korea. Here's how North Korea's Foreign Ministry put it March 11, after the United States and South Korea pressed ahead with joint military drills:

"The new administration of the U.S. is now working hard to infringe upon the sovereignty of the DPRK by force of arms in collusion with the South Korean puppet bellicose forces."  

The DPRK, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), also screeched that the drills were "nuclear war exercises designed to mount a preemptive attack," and promised it would "take every necessary measure to protect its sovereignty."

The heated rhetoric isn't due to a change in leadership in Pyongyang: North Korean state-run media reported that Kim Jong-il was unanimously reelected in elections held March 8 with turnout, it said, of 100 percent.

But one thing is clear: actions by North Korea take dramatic turns based on what Washington and Seoul are doing. 

It is widely believed here that Pyongyang's latest threats are an attempt to grab the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, and to protest the actions of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has taken a hard line against the North.

Although Pyongyang typically ratchets up its rhetoric during these annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises, it's rarely taken concrete steps to deliver on its threats.

This time, it did.

The morning the U.S.-South Korea military drills were set to begin, Pyongyang cut off cross-border military communication lines — used to exchange information about people moving between the countries — effectively stranding some 500 South Korean civilians in the North. A day later, the North allowed the South Korean civilians to travel, but it still hasn't opened the military lines.

Ahead of the drills, the North warned it would not guarantee the safety of civilian airliners passing through its airspace. South Korean carriers didn't test the reclusive state.

They immediately re-routed their flights.

North Korea's planned satellite launch has only added to the tension.

Washington and Seoul have warned against such a launch. The newly appointed U.S. envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said Monday in Seoul that it would be “extremely ill-advised” for the North to fire a rocket. He warned that a launch would violate a United Nations Security Council resolution adopted in 2006.

Pyongyang's response? “Intercepting our peaceful satellite would mean war." It went on to warn that “any small acts of hostility on our sovereignty, holy land, seas or airspace will be immediately retaliated with merciless military attacks,” according to the Yonhap News Agency.

So what is the North really after?

The makeup of the Supreme People’s Assembly is one way analysts try to guess future North Korean policy. In the March 8 elections, analysts here were looking for whether Kim Jong-il’s third son, Kim Jong-un, would be on the list of members — a strong sign that he would be his father's heir. But the younger Kim didn't appear on the 687-member parliament list, indicating that, for now anyway, Kim Jong-il remains in charge.

“Because it seems like Kim Jong-il’s health is almost back in a good state, I think they probably did not find the need to rush with the matter,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, a North Korean analyst at The Sejong Institute.

But the makeup of the new government did offer some new, and troubling, clues.

North Korean officials who have traveled to or held talks with the South tend to be friendlier to Seoul. But according to Cheong, the number of such officials has dropped significantly.

“As inter-Korean relations have soured, I get the impression that in the North the groups more open to dialogue and discourse are shrinking in size and losing their place to stand,” Cheong said.

Cover your ears. The noise from the North, it seems, may only be getting louder.

Editor's note: This dispatch has been updated to reflect news of North Korea's planned satellite launch.

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