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North Korea, don't mess with South, US signals to Kim Jong-il

North Korea was sent a clear message from the United States over the past four days of joint war games with South Korea, whose commanders were buoyed by the massive display of American support.

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Adding to the sense of deepening confrontation is the influence of China, whose protests led the US and South Korea to switch this week's exercises to the east coast instead of the Yellow Sea, the large body of water between the Korean peninsula and the Chinese mainland. Earlier in July, China conducted its own military exercises off its Yellow Sea coast with scores of planes and ships.

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Mr. Paik of the Sejong Institute believes North Korea is heartened by increasing support from China, which blocked US and South Korean efforts to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution blaming North Korea for the torpedo attack on the South Korean corvette the Cheonan. North Korea continues to deny any role in the attack in which 46 South Korean sailors died.

“With China’s assertive power, North Korea will have much more leeway to confront the US,” he says.

Clear message to North

Nonetheless, most analysts believe the exercises sent a clear message to North Korea not to engage in attacks similar to that on the Cheonan. And with US and South Korean planes and vessels planning to conduct regular monthly exercises, says Choi Jin-wook at the Korea Institute of National Unification, “they will continue to pressure North Korea.”

Mr. Choi says North Korea “has to change, to give up its nuclear program,” and he believes “they got the message.” He acknowledges, though, that “how much they can change” is the question.

North Korea has vowed to respond with “a nuclear deterrence” and “a sacred war,” but analysts say the rhetoric has come to sound so routine as not to appear as an immediate threat.

The latest editorial in Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, seemed almost restrained compared to its commentaries when the war games began on Sunday. The paper on Wednesday denounced the war game as “reckless,” urging the US to “stop at once its criminal hostile policy that escalates military confrontation and tension on the peninsula.”