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North Korea's gambit is framed in the familiar language of war

Sunday, January 12, 2003

WASHINGTON -- When North Korea coupled its decision to get out of a nuclear arms treaty with warnings of a fiery confrontation and world war, Korea-watchers acted as if a flea had landed on their lapels. Flick.

"Certainly it gives you a sense things are not going well," said Joel Wit, a global security scholar, speaking with what would seem to be comical understatement if his views were not shared so widely.

"Honestly, I don't pay much attention to it."

North Korea, through its controlled media, promised to bring "defeat and ruin" on the United States and said it was "taking a combat posture." At a rally Saturday in the capital, Pyongyang, a North Korean official called for "a holy war against the United States with a military-led might."

It is hardly the first time an outmatched power has talked bravely of a showdown with the superpower, nor the first time North Korea's bravado has found an audience not universally frightened.

The administration's response to North Korea's actions and words was stern but measured, and carefully devoid of the war talk reserved for Iraq.

Wit, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said North Korea "typically employs these rhetorical flourishes at certain points just to heighten the sense of crisis.

"It's a very well orchestrated effort," he said.

And one, he said, that is meant to give pause to other countries in the region as well as America.

as they turn up the heat on Pyongyang to stand back from the arms -- not just the words -- of Armageddon.

Shortly before the United States and its allies routed his forces in the Gulf War, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein warned darkly: "You will receive thousands of Americans wrapped in sad coffins."

Iran's clerics, in calling America the Great Satan, and Osama bin Laden, in declaring terrorist warfare on Americans -- the people, not just the government -- also picked an enemy beyond their means to defeat, though not to hurt.

Words aside, the world is keenly watching what unpredictable North Korea is doing.

The poor, small but militarized state is capable of reaching Japan with a rocket attack. It probably is capable of devastating South Korea's capital in a first strike -- from across the demilitarized zone that is the legacy of another generation's conflict between powers large and small.

Now North Korea's attempts to assemble nuclear weapons have been accentuated by its decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Not everyone gets excited anymore about what North Korea is saying.

Bellicose language is practically routine from Pyongyang, especially since President Bush came out with famously provocative rhetoric of his own in branding North Korea, Iraq and Iran an "axis of evil" a year ago.

In withdrawing from the treaty, North Korean officials and state media warned that further sanctions against their country would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

A new Korean war "will finally lead to the Third World War," said the official news agency KCNA.

U.S. pressure on North Korea's nuclear ambitions was a "strategy for domination," it said, adding, "let us see who will win and who will be defeated in the fire-to-fire standoff."

"It's not very pleasant to hear," said Kongdan Oh, co-author of "North Korea through the Looking Glass" and senior Korean researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses. But "it's very traditional, classic."

Essentially, she said, reading deeply between the lines, North Koreans are saying, "We are as fearful as you."

The Taliban's predictions of beating back America proved as empty as Saddam's threats a decade earlier. But the Vietnam and Soviet-Afghan wars -- if not the Korean conflict itself -- proved small countries can stand up to big ones, a lesson not forgotten by weaker countries.

Even so, John Goulde, director of Asian studies at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, put little stock in North Korea's foreboding talk.

"It's a show of North Korean self-importance but it really doesn't mean much," said Goulde, who lived in South Korea for 10 years. "It really doesn't have any leverage in the rest of the world, so the only thing it can use is propaganda."

Analysts noted the saber-rattling was balanced by diplomatic maneuvering -- another feature of North Korea's wary, complex relationship with the United States and South Korea.

Two North Korean envoys met in Santa Fe, N.M., with the state's governor, Bill Richardson, an intermediary to whom diplomats turn when they think a dispute is best addressed without direct top-level talks between governments.

The administration's response to North Korea's actions and words was stern but measured, and carefully devoid of the war talk reserved for Iraq.

Wit, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said North Korea "typically employs these rhetorical flourishes at certain points just to heighten the sense of crisis.

"It's a very well orchestrated effort," he said.

And one, he said, that is meant to give pause to other countries in the region as well as America as they turn up the heat on Pyongyang to stand back from the arms -- not just the words -- of Armageddon.


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