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Gaining little, N.K. likely to change approach

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Published : 2010-12-01 18:58
Updated : 2010-12-01 18:58

A largely disappointed and desperate North Korea will likely take a different posture realizing it has little to gain through military provocations such as last week’s artillery attack, analysts said Wednesday.

Apparently bidding for international attention, Pyongyang fired a barrage of artillery at a civilian-inhabited South Korean island near their sea border on Nov. 23, killing four people, setting homes ablaze and sending hundreds of civilians escaping to mainland for shelter.

While the hour-long violent naval skirmish did draw attention, Seoul and Washington vowed retaliation and are readying themselves to impose further sanctions against the unpredictable state instead of resuming talks, discouraging Pyongyang’s hopes of securing the much-needed aid.

Although its last-remaining ally China remains by its side, the country’s request to hold an emergency session to prepare for resumption of the multinational denuclearization talks have been flatly ignored by dialogue partners, further frustrating Pyongyang.

“This is clearly not the response North Korea would have hoped for. It can even be seen as a failure,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “Always quick to realize what’s best for its interest, North Korea will take a different approach so as not to raise further military tensions.”
Conservative civic group members demand retaliation for North Korea’s artillery attack on a South Korean island during a rally Monday in Paju near the inter-Korea border. (Yonhap News)

Worse still for the communist state, North Korea cannot expect “full support” from Beijing under the current circumstances, another North Korean expert here said.

“China will not outspokenly condemn its ally, but must be discomforted by the fact North Korea ignored its request not to further escalate tensions (on the Korean Peninsula,” said Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University. “Things are not turning out well for North Korea.”

Already suffering under U.N. economic sanctions for its previous atomic and missiles tests, Pyongyang has been eager to get back to the talks it has had with South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia since 2003 and secure aid in return for nuclear concessions. The last of such talks were held in December 2008.

Using China as the mediator, Pyongyang has been striving to win talks, mainly with Washington, even unveiling to U.S. experts a reportedly sophisticated and potentially dangerous uranium enrichment facility at its nuclear site.

Realizing its impatient petulance did little to get what it wants, Pyongyang will likely again attempt to drive international attention toward its uranium enrichment program, professor Kim of Dongguk University said.

“It needs to have the six-party talks reopen and this (uranium enrichment program) is its remaining best card,” he said.

North Korea, which has for long relied on its nuclear weapons and provocations to win economic assistance from the outside world, has been going through a particularly delicate time as its ailing dictator Kim Jong-il prepares to pass the impoverished regime to his young, apparently little-experienced son.

The recent provocation indicates the growing need of the ailing leader to secure the military’s loyalty toward the 20-something heir apparent Jong-un as well as political and economic stability before he comfortably hand over the reins, analysts say.

“I believe North Korea was well aware of the consequences, but took the risk for the sake of Kim Jong-un,” said Baek Seung-joo, a North Korean specialist at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “The attack was far beyond something designed to draw international attention ― it appeared more for internal purposes.”

As another disadvantageous outcome for North Korea upon the recent attack, South Koreans have become much more alert security-wise, the military beefing up defense near the border and the general public becoming aware of the fact that they are technically still at war with the North Korean rival.

The public opinion here toward North Korea and national security has always been split among the older generation and the younger generation who did not experience the 1950-53 Korean War, the latter often blaming the conservative government for worsening ties with Pyongyang.

Leftist groups here are usually against increasing the military budget, claiming the government should use the money on welfare and support for the poor instead of “unnecessary preparations.” Some of them had also doubted the government conclusion blaming the North for a March deadly sinking of warship Cheonan.

Pyongyang’s last week attack is changing all that, said professor Yoo of Korea University.

“Neither side wants another war, that’s for sure, but we must always be aware of the possibility. North Korea’s recent shelling served as an opportunity showing us the importance of military preparation,” he said.

Seoul will have no way but to continue using both the carrot and the stick in dealing with North Korea, Yoo added.

“But upon this incident, we have come to realize that strong military is the basis of engagement, dialogue and flexibility,” he said.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)