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.

Jun Jin-Hwan/Newsis/Reuters
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.

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.

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."

But North Korea made clear it would not yield to US demands for "verification" of its nuclear inventory. It called for for "denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula" in "a verifiable manner," a turn of phrase that means the US and South Korea must prove the US has really withdrawn all its nuclear weapons from South Korea as announced by then-President George H.W. Bush in 1991.

North Korea has a powerful advocate of its position in the form of Kim Dae Jung, who was president of South Korea from 1998 to 2003 and initiated the Sunshine policy of reconciliation.

Mr. Kim, in a message for Mr. Obama, delivered in remarks to foreign journalists here, called on the US to "secure North Korea's agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, including the complete abandonment of its nuclear program, abandonment of long-range missiles, and establishment of a durable peace structure on the Korean peninsula."

The way to achieve that aim, said Mr. Kim, is "through a declaration of the end of the Korean War" and a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice signed in July 1953 – a favorite longstanding North Korean demand.

It was "an indisputable fact," Mr. Kim went on, that Kim Jong Il "aspires to improve North Korea's relationship with the United States." He implied that the US had taken too tough a stance in talks, saying, "If the US conducts give-and-take negotiations and builds mutual trust, the North Korean nuclear issue and related matters would be brought to a successful end."

As it gears up for the Obama administration, North Korea has also launched virulent attacks on the South's president, Lee Myung-bak, who has upset the North by taking a hard line on verification and also on the North's record of human rights abuses.

Accusing "traitor Lee Myung-Bak and his group" of "confrontation," a North Korean officer declared on state TV that "our revolutionary armed forces are compelled to take an all-out confrontational posture to shatter them." North Korea vowed to "preserve" its rights in the Yellow Sea, the scene of bloody clashes in 1999 and 2002 over a "northern limit line" that North Korea refuses to recognize.

South Korea has responded by placing troops on alert on its side of the demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas since the Korean war, but analysts do not believe a major clash is imminent.

"North Korea wants to say, if Obama is not handling North Korea too actively, North Korea will create a problem on the Korean Peninsula," says Choi Jin-wook, chief North Korea analyst at the Korean Institute of National Unification. "This is just verbal provocation. It shows the intention of North Korea to talk to the US."

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