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2009/01/22 10:05 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 38 (January 22, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

Pyongyang's Military Threats Put Seoul on Alerts

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In unusually strong-worded threats over the weekend, North Korea vowed to take an all-out confrontational posture against South Korea. South Korea has drastically ramped up its combat readiness following the statement by a military spokesman, but Seoul said it would remain calm and not overreact with any unnecessary response.

   An unidentified spokesman for the General Staff of the North's Korean People's Army (KPA) delivered the message on state-run television denouncing the South Korean government and declaring a showdown with the Lee Myung-bak administration.

   South Korea promptly put its military on heightened alert, warning that armed clashes might take place in disputed waters in the Yellow Sea, following naval skirmishes there in 1999 and 2002 that left scores of soldiers killed or wounded on both sides.

   "Now that traitor (South Korean President) Lee Myung-bak and his group opted for confrontation," said the KPA spokesman for the General Staff, "our revolutionary armed forces are compelled to take an all-out confrontational posture to shatter them."

   Wearing a military uniform, the grim-faced spokesman read the bellicose message in a program aired by Pyongyang's official Korean Central Television Station. The statement was also released by the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). It was the first message from the North Korean army's General Staff in 10 years, and was far more strongly-worded than the North's usual tirades against the South.

   Just hours earlier in the same day, North Korea's Foreign Ministry spokesman said Pyongyang may not give up its nuclear weapons even if ties with Washington are normalized. Pyongyang will terminate its atomic program only if there is no possibility the U.S. will launch a nuclear attack against North Korea, he said.

   The message came three days before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who said during his campaign he would be willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to end the nuclear dispute.

   The North's military spokesman accused South Korean naval vessels of routinely intruding upon its maritime territory in the Yellow Sea. Seoul officials denied that claim. "There was no such occasion," said Kim Ho-nyoun, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry handling inter-Korean affairs.

   The inter-Korean western sea border, known as the Northern Limit Line (NLL), was unilaterally drawn by U.S.-led U.N. forces at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Pyongyang does not recognize the line and claims it should be re-drawn further south. The war ended in a ceasefire, not a formal peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas technically at war. "There will exist in the West Sea of Korea only the extension of the Military Demarcation Line designated by the DPRK (North Korea) till the day of national reunification, not the illegal 'Northern Limit Line,'" he said.

   The South Korean military responded swiftly. It asked the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to remain on raised alert and asked the U.S. military to increase reconnaissance using U-2 spy planes against North Korea, military officials said. The presidential office Cheong Wa Dae held an emergency meeting and briefed Lee on the North's statement, according to officials.

   In an apparent message to Obama, North Korea said earlier in the day that Pyongyang will keep its nuclear capability until it feels safe from the U.S. nuclear threat. "Normalization of diplomatic relations and the nuclear issue are entirely different issues," a spokesman for the North's foreign ministry said. "We can live without normalized relations with the United States but can't live without nuclear deterrence. That is the reality of Korea today," he said.

   Seoul analysts said North Korea is talking to the U.S., not South Korea, with its two statements on Jan. 17. By raising military tension with Seoul, Pyongyang wants to draw Washington's attention to push a stalled aid-for-denuclearization deal forward, as the U.S. is currently preoccupied with its economic crisis and Iran.

   "Both the statements from the KPA's General Staff and from the Foreign Ministry are a message to the United States," said Choi Jin-wook, a senior fellow with the Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-run think tank.

   Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea studies professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, noted the timing of the military warning. "We should note that the statements are coming out just before the Obama administration's inauguration," he said. "As for whether the military threat on the South will materialize, we have to keep in mind that North Korea's focus is on improving relations with the U.S.."

   Meanwhile, a U.S. expert said following a trip to Pyongyang that North Korea claimed it has "weaponized" enough plutonium to make four or five nuclear weapons. "All of those I met said that North Korea has already weaponized the 30.8 kg of plutonium listed in its formal declaration and that the weapons cannot be inspected," Selig Harrison, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a policy institute in Washington D.C., told a news conference in Beijing on Jan. 17. He had just ended his five-day trip to Pyongyang.

   South Korean officials said they are taking the North's threat seriously, especially because of the way it was delivered. A day after a full-uniformed North Korean army spokesman read the statement on national television networks, the North's media repeated it over and over again.

   South Korea, an official said, is deploying an "overwhelming" number of troops near potential flash points, including the western sea boundary, called the Northern Limit Line (NLL).

   In an apparent effort not to provoke North Korea, South Korean officials said they have decided not to issue an official response to the North. "We are keeping a close watch on North Korea's move. But we have no plan to issue a statement against North Korea. We will take a low-key approach," another government official said.

   The official echoed analysts' view that the North might be attempting to draw attention from the incoming U.S. government, which is expected to prioritize the troubled campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq over the North Korean nuclear issue. "North Korea appears to be trying to raise tension ahead of the launch of the Obama administration," he said.

   Seoul-Pyongyang ties have been frosty since conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul early last year, linking the North's denuclearization to cross-border economic cooperation.

   The official added the North might also want to distract attention from the reported ill health of leader Kim Jong-il. South Korean and U.S. intelligence believe the 66-year-old leader is recovering from a stroke he suffered last summer. Kim's unconfirmed heath condition raise uncertainties over the North's next step.

   North Korea's latest military threats are widely viewed by analysts as brinkmanship aimed at the incoming U.S. administration, but they also coincide with growing speculation of a power transfer in Pyongyang and heightened internal propaganda by the regime.

   Analysts also link the heightened propaganda to growing economic concerns in North Korea. In its New Year joint editorial, Pyongyang pledged to "solve food problems by our own efforts" and rebuild the nation's decrepit industrial infrastructure, but prospects for such goals appear dim. In a political campaign to mobilize citizens, Pyongyang restored a postwar industrial campaign this year with a pledge to make a "powerful, prosperous nation" by 2012.

   Some, however, caution against simplifying North Korea's offensive as internal rhetoric. A power transfer in the communist state is a highly contained issue, and with its latest threats, North Korea is literally warning South Korea that it may initiate a military clash should Seoul continue its hardline stance, said Paik Hak-soon, another senior researcher with the Sejong Institute.