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(News Focus) North Korea finally at front and center of U.S. attention

2017/04/27 04:57

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, April 26 (Yonhap) -- For many years, one of the most frequently cited explanations for North Korea's bad behavior and saber-rattling, such as weapons tests and bellicose rhetoric, was that the communist nation was trying to grab U.S. attention.

The point was that the U.S. was so preoccupied with Iran, Syria and other Middle Eastern problems that it could hardly afford to pay enough attention to the North and therefore Pyongyang was trying to use "shock therapy" to get Washington into negotiations where it can extort economic aid and other concessions.

Indeed, former President Barack Obama ignored the North Korea problem under its "strategic patience" policy, with four of the North's five nuclear tests taking place when he was in office. At that time, North Korean provocations, such as missile and nuclear tests, briefly grabbed the headlines, but were quickly overshadowed by developments in the Middle East.

Now, the situation is exactly opposite.

Hardly a single day passes without President Donald Trump or other top officials or lawmakers talking or tweeting about the seriousness of North Korean threats. So much so that even the usual threats in Pyongyang's state media, which used to get little attention, are now played up greatly in American news outlets.

North Korea is firmly at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy and of Trump's attention.

It all started when Trump met with Obama at the White House just a couple of days after his November election.

During that meeting, Obama reportedly warned that North Korea will be Trump's most difficult foreign policy challenge.

Then came North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's New Year's Day address, declaring that the regime entered into the final stage of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, an apparent threat that it's close to perfecting capabilities to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons.

Even though it was before his inauguration, Trump responded with a tweet saying such a thing "won't happen."

   During the nearly 100 days since taking office, the North has carried out several missile launches beginning with a February test of a newly developed intermediate-range ballistic missile powered by solid fuel. Though none of the launches involved a long-range missile, such tests were seen as a prelude to an ICBM test.

Trump declared his determination to solve the problem a number of times, calling the North "a big, big problem" and even a "humanity problem."

   U.S. media was flooded with North Korea-related reports in the run-up to the April 15 anniversary of the birth of the North's late founding leader, Kim Il-sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un, amid concern Pyongyang could detonate a nuclear device to mark the holiday.

One of the most symbolic events signifying the seriousness with which the Trump administration views the issue was Wednesday's unprecedented briefing that the White House organized for all 100 senators to get them up to date on its North Korea policy.

Senators moved in a fleet of buses to the White House for the briefing, where Trump was scheduled to stop by.

"Trump has clearly raised North Korea to a top priority in U.S. foreign policy and also as a defining issue in U.S.-China relations," Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said.

Even though the North's actual behavior this year is less provocative than in the recent past because there has been no nuclear or long-range rocket or missile tests, what's driving U.S. policy is the cumulative weight of their nuclear and missile programs and the growing realization that at some point in the foreseeable future, most likely four to five years away, the North will have an operational ICBM, he said.

"Trump's preoccupation with North Korea has a domestic political element: he is concerned with appearances -- especially First 100 Days successes, and his tough posture on North Korea, and what appears to be unprecedented new cooperation from China on North Korea, distinguishes his presidency and, he is hoping, will boost his standing in U.S. opinion polls," Manning said.

The problem is that Trump seeks "instant gratification" when there is no near-term solution, he said.

Ken Gause, a North Korea expert who is director of the international affairs group at CNA Corp. in Washington, said that Trump's prioritization of the North Korea issue could be a clever plan to raise tensions with North Korea in order to make Pyongyang more pliable to negotiations.

"If the Trump administration does not have a strategy and is just separating itself from the Obama's strategic patience by driving up tensions, then this is a very dangerous game," he said.

North Korea appears to be acting cautiously as it's "perplexed by the Trump administration and when they are not sure how escalation might work out."

   "Now, it should be understood that pressure alone by the U.S. and China will only keep NK in a box for a short period of time. Once the pressure subsides (and no diplomatic initiative is in place), Pyongyang will likely begin to act up again," he said.

jschang@yna.co.kr

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