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N.K. upping tension to pressure S. Korea, U.S.

By Shin Hae-in

The escalating provocations by North Korea indicate the reclusive state’s growing frustration toward the conservative South Korean government as well as the need to hold one-on-one talks with Washington for aid and internal stability, analysts and officials in Seoul said Tuesday.

Pyongyang fired dozens of artillery shells onto a South Korean island near the border Tuesday, upping regional tensions just days after it claimed to have restarted uranium enrichment activities for suspicious purposes.

The attack killed at least two South Korean marines, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said after returning fire and vowing to keep up a military alert by cooperating with the U.S. forces here.

“North Korea appears to be growing desperate, realizing that unveiling its uranium enrichment program is not enough to get the U.S. moving,” a diplomatic source in Seoul said, asking not to be named. “This is not the first time it threw a tantrum after not getting its way.”

An American scientist claimed during the weekend he had been shown a sophisticated uranium enrichment facility and what is believed to be 2,000 completed centrifuges on his tour of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site.

North Korea has also been speeding up the power transfer from its ailing leader Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Jong-un, sparking concerns that the unpredictable state may take a provocative step, such as a third atomic test, to defuse internal complaints.

“The North Korean regime has always used military provocations as a way of strengthening solidarity of its people in times of internal crisis,” the unnamed source in Seoul said. “It could also think this will show the world that the incoming leader will continue to rule strong.”

North Korea probably “felt ignored and enraged” after Seoul, Tokyo and Washington reaffirmed during meetings of their chief nuclear envoys this week that they would not resume negotiations with it until it abandoned its nuclear programs, said Yang Moo-jin, a North Korean expert in Seoul.

It wanted to show both Seoul and Washington that it is still “fully capable of increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” he added.

The communist North has been hoping to restart the stalled multinational denuclearization talks it has had with Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow since 2003, apparently in need of outside assistance of food and fuel it can secure through the negotiations. Pyongyang has often used its nuclear ambitions to secure more international assistance, conducting two atomic tests in the past that led to international sanctions deepening its isolation.

The Voice of America reported earlier Tuesday that high-ranking officials in North Korea had told a visiting U.S. official the country was willing to start dismantling its nuclear facilities and suspend uranium enrichment activities should Washington agree to hold direct talks.

Leon Sigal, the director of the New York-based Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project who paid a four-day visit to Pyongyang last week, had delivered this message to the governments of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, the broadcaster said. It did not elaborate on who the North Korean officials were.

Unyielding, Washington continued to shun direct talks with Pyongyang and been passive about an early resumption of the stalled six-nation denuclearization talks, claiming the communist state should first live up to the 2005 promise to dismantle nuclear facilities.

In an earlier press briefing, the U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Washington “will not be drawn into rewarding North Korea for bad behavior” and it was “not buying into such a cycle.”

Pyongyang is aiming at getting both Seoul and Washington moving by upping provocations, another North Korean expert in Seoul said.

“By upping military tensions, North Korea appears to have aimed at getting through to the South Korean government that it means business,” said Kim Yeong-su of Seoul’s Sogang University. “Also, it knows this is the way to get the U.S. associated.”

North Korea, which has reportedly been suffering from deepening food shortages, has been requesting Seoul to resume cross-border tours to its scenic resort. The tours had been one of Pyongyang’s main sources of income until they were suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot dead in 2008.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry said it will delay the Red Cross talks previously slated for Thursday.

“Any form of inter-Korean discussions is out of question for the time being,” said an unnamed ministry official.

The recent flurry of developments on the divided Korean Peninsula draws attention to the future position of China and Russia, former war allies of Pyongyang which have often differed with other partners of the six-nation denuclearization talks.

China, in particular, has often served as a stumbling block in coordinating positions of the denuclearization dialogue partners as North Korea’s largest financial donor and diplomatic supporter.

Earlier this year, the Chinese government refused to agree with the results of Seoul’s investigation which faulted North Korea for sinking its warship Cheonan and killing 46 sailors.

“We express our concern over the situation. The situation is to be verified,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regularly scheduled media briefing in Beijing, refusing to comment further on the issue.

China maintained its position that the six-nation talks should resume promptly as its officials met with U.S. envy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth earlier Tuesday, differing from the views of Washington.

The recent military provocation by Pyongyang will put Beijing in the hot seat, analysts say.

“China will not be siding with North Korea if such a position will risk peace on the Korean Peninsula. That is the last thing it wants,” said Paik Hak-soon of Seoul’s think tank Sejong Institute. “This isn’t the kind of issue China can, or will, stay silent about.”

The two Koreas remain at war as their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a permanent peace treaty.

The western sea border of the two divided Koreas has long been a scene of military conflicts as Pyongyang refuses to recognize the border it claims was unilaterally drawn by the U.S.-led United Nations at the end of the Korean War. The two Koreas have fought three bloody skirmishes near the border in recent years.