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(News Focus) N. Korea's exit strategy may be hidden in foe's words
By Sam Kim
SEOUL, May 28 (Yonhap) -- As pressure tightens on North Korea to come clean on its attack on a South Korean warship, the exit strategy for Pyongyang's idolized leader, Kim Jong-il, may be lying in the words of his foes -- or in the absence of words directly placing blame on him.

   Kim, who rules his impoverished state with menacing nuclear arms ambitions, has disappeared from public eye since last week when Seoul condemned Pyongyang for the March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, citing the results of a multinational probe accepted by much of the West.

   North Korea denies involvement in the tragedy that claimed 46 lives, while South Korea, the U.S. and Japan are stiffening their diplomatic and economic stranglehold on the North as punishment.

   Pyongyang is threatening an all-out war for any retaliation for the sinking, vowing to destroy South Korean propaganda equipment and "mercilessly strike" anyone intruding on North Korea.

   But experts say a full-scale attack by North Korea would be suicidal as the communist country struggles with obsolete weapons and a malnourished army, barring its rudimentary nuclear devices.

   Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea professor at the Dongguk University, said the only way for Pyongyang to survive the crisis would be for its 68-year-old leader to have the courage to say, "I did not know."

   "That would be the most rational face-saving measure for Kim," he said.

   Koh said if North Korea chose to admit to its responsibility, it would likely blame a military unit that harbored a grudge for a naval defeat off the west coast in November last year.

   North Korea does have a history of apologizing to its southern neighbor at the highest level, which is often overshadowed by its bloodcurdling rhetoric.

   In 1972 when South Korea's spy chief visited Pyongyang -- four years after a group of North Korean infiltrators attempted an attack on the presidential office in Seoul -- then-North Korean President Kim Il-sung told him, "I did not know."

   South Korean media said after the spy chief returned that Kim also sacked three of his top security aides for the attack he blamed on "hardliners," a step his son could now imitate.

   Room for such a maneuver opened when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a nationally televised address last week, refraining from directly criticizing Kim Jong-il. His aides said the name of the North Korean leader was absent from the text on purpose.

   The restraint was shared by the U.S. when its top diplomat, Hillary Clinton, visited Seoul earlier this week and said her country is considering "additional options and authorities to hold North Korea and its leaders accountable."

   "The plurality in describing the North Korean leadership is a shrewd diplomatic move that allows the North room to breathe and think," Kim Hong-kyu, a scholar at the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

   "South Korea and the U.S. are leaving open a retreat route for Kim," he said, a view shared by Lee Sin-hwa, an international relations expert at Korea University in Seoul.

   "Clinton's remarks appear to be in line with President Lee's," she said, adding the North could seize on the chance to find a scapegoat for the Cheonan sinking.

   In his routine briefing on Wednesday, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung hinted at a step the North could take to start defusing tension along their border.

   "When North Korea should apologize and prosecute those responsible (for the sinking,) it has again taken measures undermining inter-Korean relations," Chun said as he expressed regrets for Pyongyang severing all ties with Seoul.

   "There's the answer," Lee, the analyst, said.