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N. Korea strident as Obama takes reins

The North claimed to have weaponized plutonium and said its nuclear status would not change. But analysts see bid for attention.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 2009

Just in case: S. Korean special command soldiers drilled in the snow Monday. While a flare-up is not expected, North Korea's harsh tone prompted the South to put its troops on alert.

Jun Jin-Hwan/Newsis/Reuters



Behind an outpouring of strident rhetoric from North Korea ahead of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration lies a crying need for attention – and recognition of the country's status as a bargaining partner and nuclear power, say analysts here.

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North Korea has chosen singularly harsh language to get its points across as a new US administration takes over.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman declared last weekend, "Our status as a nuclear weapons state will never founder as long as the US nuclear threat remains, even a bit" – appearing to reverse an agreement nearly two years ago to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

North Korean diplomats also told Selig Harrison, an American just back from North Korea who has a long record of criticizing US policy, that the North had "weaponized 30.8 kilograms of plutonium" – enough for five of the six to 12 warheads that US intelligence analysts suspect the North has already fabricated.

The message from North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, says Kim Tae-woo, vice president of the Korea Institute For Defense Analyses, is: " 'Please don't push us into a corner, don't expect us to drop our nuclear weapons – and let's have better relations.' Internally, Kim Jong Il is saying, 'I'm still strong,' " despite reports that he suffered a stroke last August.

The strident tone may not signal a major setback, however. "They are saying they are trying to prepare for the nuclear issue," says Paik Hak-soon, director of North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute. "If Obama seriously engages North Korea, with enough incentives, there's a chance we can denuclearize North Korea."

Mr. Paik says that the Bush administration, in its final months, hardened its position. "Bush policymakers tried to warn the Obama administration," he says. "They were trying to project North Korea's image as a bad guy."

Particularly upsetting, he suggests, was a remark by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that, "You'd have to be an idiot to trust the North Koreans."

Now, he says, North Korea wants the US to show respect by naming a negotiator dedicated full-time to resolving the nuclear issue.

North Korea linked its position to its longstanding goal of forming diplomatic relations with the United States, – but in a manner that appears carefully defiant.

"We can live without normalized relations," said the foreign ministry spokesman, "but can't live without nuclear deterrence."

The outbursts appeared as part of a finely tuned campaign.

Mr. Harrison, arriving in Beijing after talks with senior North Korean foreign ministry officials, told reporters the North "wants friendly relations with the United States" and North Korea and the US "can become intimate friends."