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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 251 (February 28, 2013)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korea Steps up Efforts to Highlight Nuclear Power Status after Nuclear Test

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- After its recent third nuclear test, North Korea's state media have stepped up efforts to call the country a nuclear-armed state in an apparent bid to gain international recognition as a de facto nuclear power.

   Observers in Seoul said while Pyongyang has long boasted of its nuclear capability, media coverage rose sharply right after the socialist nation detonated its third nuclear device on Feb. 12.

   Major North Korean media outlets such as Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK), and the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), even mentioned the country's nuclear status when reporting on an international marathon and a first full moon festival.

   On Feb. 25, Rodong Sinmun boasted of its possession of nuclear arms while expressing pleasure over its athlete winning a gold medal at an Asian marathon. A day earlier, during the first full moon of the year by the lunar calendar, the Korean Central Television reported that people celebrated the event while taking pride in their country "presenting to the world its nuclear-power status."

   Analysts believe the recent atomic test, coupled with its December launch of a long-range missile, has brought the North much closer to its long-cherished status as a nuclear power.

   By capitalizing on its various propaganda organs, including its online tools, Pyongyang apparently seeks to form and spread a discourse that would help it gain recognition as a de facto nuclear power, they pointed out.

   The North already proclaimed its nuclear power status in its revised Constitution last year, with media coverage mentioning this capability at least once or twice a day after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

   However, right after the latest test, more than 10 reports mentioning the country's nuclear prowess have been reported on a daily basis. On Feb. 25 alone, 13 stories, including those sent out by Uriminzokkiri, North Korea's main Internet-based media or propaganda Web site, touched on Pyongyang's unconventional weapons capabilities.

   An editorial by Rodong Sinmun said that achievements made in the fields of long-range rockets and nuclear weapons should be used to build a strong and economically vibrant country. The North launched the Unha-3 rocket on Dec. 12, with outsiders considering it to be an intercontinental ballistic missile.

   In addition, the paper started using South Korean media reports and interviews that alluded to the North as a "nuclear power" to point out that even Seoul acknowledges Pyongyang's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

   Seoul and most of the world officially do not recognize Pyongyang's WMD claims and have urged it to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and rules set by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

   North Korea watchers said that besides trying to win international recognition, Pyongyang may be using its nuclear weapons and rocket capability to strengthen the power base of Kim Jong-un, who was not well-known before the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011. After his father's death, Kim Jong-un became the leader of the belligerent nation.

   Also, North Korea claimed on Feb. 21 that its third nuclear test forced the international community to recognize it as a "strategic rocket and nuclear weapons state."

   The Central Military Commission of the North's ruling Workers' Party and the National Defense Commission made the claim in a message to scientists, technicians and others involved in the Feb. 12 nuclear blast, according to the KCNA.

   "The underground nuclear test ... represented a great political and military victory as it made the international community confidently recognize the status of the DPRK (North Korea) as a strategic rocket and nuclear weapons state," the KCNA said.

   The atomic test also dealt "sledge-hammer blows to the U.S. imperialists, Japanese reactionaries and the South Korean puppet forces who are working with bloodshot eyes to force the DPRK to 'disarm itself' and to 'overturn its social system,'" the message said.

   Observers also said that through the nuclear test, Pyongyang might also intend to send a message to the U.S. that it wants to hold talks over mutual nuclear arms reduction, on the premise that it is a nuclear power, or over peace talks on that premise.

   Internally, Pyongyang might have used the media with an emphasis on its "nuclear deterrence" to further strengthen the fledgling leadership and boost the morale of the ruling elite.

   "The North, having detonated three nuclear devices so far, is now moving to proclaim to the world that it is a full-fledged nuclear power, to win recognition," said Hong Hyun-ik, the director of securities strategy studies at the Sejong Institute in Seongnam, just south of Seoul.

   Some experts raised the possibility that Pyongyang might use its nuclear-power status to readjust its relationship with China. In turn, China might think that this is not fair because of North Korea's heavy economic reliance on its only major patron.

   "Pyongyang could seek to show off its nuclear power to China and reset bilateral ties, thinking that Beijing might have thought that it could handle the North as it pleased due to its hefty economic assistance," said Ahn Chan-il, director of the World North Korea Research Center in Seoul.

   "The impoverished North could think its national pride was trampled upon by China and that the bilateral relationship should change as it claims to have become a nuclear-armed state."

   Already severely isolated due to its missile and nuclear tests that violated U.N. resolutions, Pyongyang is known to receive some 300,000-400,000 tons of grain and 500,000 tons of oil from China each year. The North's annual food shortage amounts to around 800,000 tons while its annual oil consumption is around 1 million tons.

   As the international community moves to penalize North Korea for its WMD program, the isolated country honored contributors of its latest nuclear test in a large ceremony, observers said on Feb. 22.

   Scientists, technicians and officials involved in the Feb. 12 nuclear detonation were invited to the capital city of Pyongyang on Feb. 20 in a move that was also extended earlier to those who played a leading role in the successful launch of the Unha-3 rocket.

   Analysts said the attention lavished on the contributors of the nuclear test is a way for the communist country to use the scientists and technicians to improve national cohesion and public loyalty for the country's young leader Kim Jong-un.

   In addition, more than 11,000 North Koreans have been cited for their contribution to the country's nuclear test, the North Korea media said on Feb. 23. The KCNA reported that a total of 11,592 scientists, technicians, workers and officials have received state decorations for their roles in the test.

   Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has visited military units four times in less than a week since his first publicized inspection on Feb. 21.

   "Supreme Commander of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA) Kim Jong-un inspected KPA Unit 323 honored with the title of O Jung-hup-led 7th Regiment," a dispatch from the KCNA said on Feb. 21. The unit is part of the KPA's Air Force and anti-aircraft defense element, the report said without disclosing the date of the visit.

   During the visit, the North Korean leader presented binoculars and automatic rifles to soldiers as gifts and browsed its military facilities, according to the KCNA report.

   Kim urged the soldiers to "further step up preparations for battles ... and play a big role in the showdown with the enemies," the report also noted.

   Given the heavy importance Kim placed on Unit 323, experts say it may be the unit related to the country's missile activities.

   Kim's visit to the unit reflects his efforts to celebrate the military as well as show off the country's military readiness to the outside world, experts also said.

   North Korea's state media reported Kim Jong-un's visit to a military unit for the second day in a row on Feb. 22, fueling speculation in Seoul that the leader has resumed his high-profile tours to strengthen his public-support base.

   According to the KCNA, Kim visited the KPA's 526th large combined unit and guided a live-fire exercise involving various types of artillery.

   After the exercise, Kim said he highly appreciated the fighting spirit shown by the troops and noted it is necessary to continue the push to strengthen the military in order to accomplish the revolutionary cause of Juche. Juche, meaning self-reliance, is North Korea's guiding philosophy.

   The news wire said Kim called on service personnel to become "stalwart fighters possessed of Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il's strategy and tactics, bold offensive methods and perfect capability to fight an actual war."

   The leader also said North Korean soldiers have the will to deal mercilessly with anyone who dares to attack the communist country.

   In his third visit, Kim Jong-un oversaw military aerial and paratrooping exercises, Pyongyang's state media reported on Feb. 23.

   Pyongyang's KCNA said that Kim "guided a flight exercise and a paratrooping drill of the Air and Anti-Air Force and Large Combined Unit 630."

   Kim called on his troops to "put spurs to making preparations for going into action, keeping at maximum alert at all times."

   The KCNA reported on Feb. 26 that Kim inspected artillery units conducting live-fire exercises to check if they could "fight an actual war." Kim ordered the exercises and visited a unit to guide the artillerymen, according to the report. The report said that Kim was satisfied with the results and praised the artillerymen.

   Kim said that if the drill had happened during an actual combat situation, the enemy would have been "hit so hard they would not have been able to raise their heads."

   Kim added that after the exercise he was convinced that the officers and men of the army were waiting for an order for the "final attack" against the enemy and they are keeping themselves at a maximum level of alertness.

   Seoul's defense ministry said one-fifth of North Korean media coverage of its young leader this year was of his military inspections, which were more frequent than during the same period the previous year.

   "Kim Jong-un's frequent military visits are seen as part of his military-first policies and attempts to intensify threats against South Korea," the South's ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing. "We are closely observing his military inspections."

   Kim dismissed Pyongyang's proclamation of being a nuclear state, saying it would take some time for the impoverished communist nation to become a nuclear power despite recent tests.

   "South Korea's military is mulling over various ways to cope with North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons," Kim said.

   According to a military source, North Korea's military has stepped up exercises under a heightened state of readiness, but it has recently showed instances of lax military discipline, such as several soldiers deserting from their units, physical abuses and the wreckage of a ship.