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North Korea, South Korea standoff heats up as war games begin

South Korea and the US start new war games Monday, just days after the South dropped propaganda leaflets about Middle East revolutions over North Korea.

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North Korea, however, may still be tempted to defy South Korea, responding not to war games but to the launching over the past week of balloons carrying several hundred thousand propaganda leaflets from the South. The leaflets include detailed reports of protests in the Middle East – a precedent that North Korean leaders clearly do not want their own people to know about.

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While there is no way of telling how many have been read, enough of them have fallen into the hands of North Koreans for the government to threaten to fire at launch sites the next time balloons are launched.

Another sign of North Korean concern about the impact of events in the Middle East is a report that authorities have cut off cellphone service between Korean cities except for conversations among high-level officials. More than 300,000 North Koreans now have cellphones provided by the Egyptian firm Orascom Telecom.

“They are afraid news of the democracy movement will spread,” says Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which picks up information from North Korea on cellphone contacts through Chinese networks and broadcasts two hours daily by shortwave into the North.

South Korean officials staunchly deny any direct role in the balloon launches, which they say are the handiwork of nongovernmental organizations, several of them spurred by defectors from North Korea.

“We do not have the legal means to restrict them,” says an official from the South’s Unification Ministry, responsible for dealing with North Korea. The government, he says, has “advised them to cut down their activities, but they continue to send them.”

As for the latest spate of invective from North Korea, Mr. Ha believes the North is still hoping to bring about renewal of six-party talks about its nuclear program. While the North would not give up its nuclear program, he says, North Korean diplomats would then get the chance to bargain for much needed food. Supplies reach their lowest levels in the late spring and early summer before the current year’s crops are harvested.

“These days, North Korea wants to get more food from the rest of the world,” he says. “They want to have rice from the United States” – one of the biggest sources of food aid before South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak cut off most aid to North Korea three years ago and the US agreed to follow suit.

View gallery: Who has nukes?

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