North Korea's pattern of escalation on hold - for now

UN Security Council meets Wednesday to discuss how to handle the nuclear crisis.

After months of North Korean jabs, feints, provocations, and accusations that the US is planning an attack on Korea, things are relatively quiet on the eastern front of the DMZ.

The North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was expected to use the cover of the Iraq war to escalate his nuclear and missile program. But so far, there's no evidence of escalation, sources say.

Rather, the real news has been the resurfacing of the Dear Leader - after an absence dating to Feb. 12 that included, for the first time, a no-show at the annual Communist Party Congress in Pyongyang last month. Mr. Kim was shown outside an Army medical college, wearing his trademark oversized dark glasses and flanked by a dozen North Korean military officers.

Analysts here say it is too early to write off Kim's threats and his calculations about the future survival of his regime in a post-Iraq war world. It is unclear, for example, how vigorously the North is pursuing the secret and unmonitorable enriched uranium program that Kim admitted having last October in a meeting with US diplomats. The North is still poised to start a reprocessing plant used to create weapons-grade plutonium.

Kim is thought to have spent his recent isolation closely studying the US-led assault on Baghdad and weighing US efforts to bring a six-nation coalition, including China and Russia, to pressure him into multilateral talks that would focus on dismantling his nuclear program.

Currently, evidence is building, including the recent North Korean quiet, that Kim may accept some kind of multilateral negotiation format - rather than hold out for the one-on-one talks he has sought with the White House.

But some US officials, distrustful of the North, feel Kim may simply use a long process of talks as a pretext for further weapons development. In a statement Sunday, North Korea's Foreign Ministry reversed its earlier position that a nonaggression pact with the US would help resolve the nuclear standoff, saying that only a strong military deterrent could play that role.

A key date arrives Wednesday, when the UN Security Council will hold the first official talks on how to handle and whether to take punitive measures on the North's nuclear bid. Last January, Kim Jong Il announced the North would withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; on Thursday, that withdrawal formally goes into effect under UN rules.

The US had been hoping to build a case at the UN for limited sanctions on the North - blocking certain kinds of missile and nuclear technology parts from entering the country. But China, which has only grudgingly gone along with the upcoming Security Council meeting, is opposed to such efforts.

North Korea has repeatedly stated that any sanctions would be "tantamount to war" - and experts say the only way to actually enforce sanctions would be through a military blockade of the North, a highly provocative measure that goes past what US allies Japan and South Korea could accept just now, sources here say.

At the Security Council this week, "There is likely not going to be discussion on specific sanctions, or US-driven initiatives," says Kim Tae-hyo of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, in Seoul. "What is more likely is a joint announcement urging the North to think about multilateral forums."

Over the past week, the US has taken two steps widely seen here as stern messages to the North. First, the US has decided that several Stealth fighter-bombers, flown in for a military exercise that ended last month, will stay in South Korea.

Second, in a move that is likely to concern both North and South Korea, US defense officials are preparing to move some 17,000 troops along the demilitarized zone to a position south of the Han River, below Seoul. The troops, based along the line for roughly 50 years, have long been called a "tripwire" for any North invasion of the South. From the South's military perspective, the US troops have sometimes been called "hostages" whose presence ensures the North will not attack, or if attacked would guarantee a robust US response.

From the North's perspective, moving the troops out of the direct line of North artillery could appear to be a prelude to a US strike against Pyongyang's nuclear sites.

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