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North Korea raises tensions ahead of Clinton visit

Recent moves to possibly test a long-range missile may be aimed at grabbing US attention.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 2009

Seoul, South Korea

The United States appears willing to accept the reality of North Korea as a nuclear power – a measure of credit that Washington has refused to give since Pyongyang exploded a nuclear device in 2006.

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The potential shift in US outlook comes as Pyongyang ratchets up tensions and the new US administration formulates its policy on North Korea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to visit the region next week.

"I'm not going into terminology," Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of US forces in Korea, said Monday, but acknowledged North Korea had "successfully" conducted a nuclear test while proclaiming its desire to be a nuclear power.

General Sharp's comment fueled concerns here that the US is conceding the nuclear-power status that North Korea craves. Leon Panetta, designated to direct the Central Intelligence Agency, signaled the shift in official thinking last week when he observed at a Senate confirmation hearing that it was not clear if North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was "prepared to give up that nuclear capability."

Those comments coincided with reports of North Korea moving a long-range Taepodong-2 missile to a launch pad on the east coast, after repudiating a North-South nonaggression pact that took effect 17 years ago and appearing to harden conditions on giving up the warheads it already has.

"This is typical North Korean tactics," says Kim Sung-han, professor of international studies at Korea University. "When North Korea is interested in negotiating a certain issue, they need to create tensions." Its central interest now, he says, is "sending a message to the US, and to South Korea too, before the Obama administration finishes its policy review."

The US hopes to restart six-party talks, which also include South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, but just how far the Obama administration will go to halt the North's program remains unclear.