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N. Korea escalates hostility

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SEOUL

A last-minute 1-0 victory by South Korea's soccer team against opponent North Korea offered the South a rare taste of one-upmanship at a time of growing hostility from its rival. After round after round of attacks on a seemingly unbreakable North Korean perimeter, South Korean striker Kim Chi-woo brought the partisan crowd to its feet with just minutes to spare. But the soccer drama this week at Seoul's Sangam World Cup Stadium took place in the shadow of ever-increasing tension, as North Korea ratchets up bellicosity toward the South, as well as the United States and Japan.

The launch of what Pyongyang calls a satellite but which uses the same system - the Taepodong-2 rocket - as an intercontinental ballistic missile is expected next week.

The Pentagon said Thursday that final preparations for the launch had begun, and the crisis briefly diverted President Obama's attention from the global financial meltdown when he met South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the sidelines of an economic summit in London.

The two leaders called for a "stern" and "unified" response if the North goes ahead with the launch.

In a separate development, the North said it will put on trial two American reporters who were arrested two weeks ago on the country´s border with China. If convicted of espionage charges, they could face a decade in labor camp, Reporters Without Borders has warned.

Also, a South Korean worker arrested Monday by North Korean authorities in the Kaesong joint industrial zone - just north of the North-South border - for reportedly criticizing the communist nation remains in detention without access to South Korean officials.

The missile launch is of greatest concern because a successful test would go a long way toward the North developing the capacity to deliver a nuclear bomb almost anywhere.

Although Seoul and Washington have vowed to let the rocket fly, Japan is reportedly mulling shooting it down. Publicly, Japanese officials say they will not shoot unless the rocket is headed for Japanese soil.

Some analysts fear the threat of the North developing long-range nuclear missiles may be graver than it appears.

"I have seen government intelligence assessments - I cannot say which government or agency, but it is one that is very close to this issue - that the North Koreans have nuclear warheads," said Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group´s Seoul office.

Some pundits state that detained American television reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee provide insurance for Pyongyang´s upcoming test.

"I think they are there to make sure the Americans don´t do anything rash over the missile launch," said Brian R. Myers, a specialist in North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University.

The missile launch is not simply a strategic threat: It also increases the possibility of jittery global investors recalibrating South Korea´s sovereign risk profile.

"The missile hits the South Koreans where it hurts - in their economy," Mr. Myers said. "The last thing Lee Myung-bak needs now is international investor concern."

The status of the South Korean worker in Kaesong, who has yet to be publicly identified, remains unknown.

The man is believed to have made drunken statements about North Korea, said Yoo Chung-Geun, vice chairman of an association of southern companies that operate in the North-South factory complex.

Asked what steps his organization was taking over the launch, Mr. Yoo told reporters, "We are monitoring the situation, but there is nothing we can do."

While many believe that North Korea is attempting to grab the attention of the Obama administration, local experts disagree.

Choi Jin-wook of the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul said that the North´s aggressive behavior has roots in its disintegrating economy.

In 2007, the cash-strapped nation ran a $500 million trade surplus with South Korea, and a $800 million deficit with China, he said.

But in late 2008, as the global financial crisis hit regional economies, Pyongyang´s surplus with Seoul sank to $340 million, while its deficit with Beijing climbed to $1.3 billion.

"North Korea is critically affected by the trade decline, so it started to escalate tension in November," said Mr. Choi. "South Korea did not respond, so it continued raising tensions through February, then changed its target from South Korea to the United States."

But while the North blusters to the outside world, there is also a strong domestic constituency that requires international tension to shore up internal stability.

"The regime needs a constant external threat, and the leader has to position himself against it," said Michael Breen, a biographer of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. "The audience is all domestic."

Given these issues, there is little chance that the soccer match, which put South Korea at the top of its qualifying group for the next World Cup, will be shown on state media north of the 38th parallel.

"North Korean media does not cover unplanned events," said Mr. Myers. "And a loss to South Korea would be an unplanned event."

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