- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Tuesday delivered a firm counterpunch to a wave of antagonistic rhetoric and nuclear threats by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, vowing that the U.S. is prepared to “do what is necessary” to defend itself and its longtime allies South Korea and Japan.

“The bottom line is very simply that what Kim Jong-un has been choosing to do is provocative. It is dangerous, reckless, and the United States will not accept [North Korea] as a nuclear state,” said Mr. Kerry, who appeared at the State Department after private talks with South Korea’s foreign minister.

Mr. Kerry added that it “would be a very serious step” if North Korea follows through with its most recent threat to begin strengthening its nuclear capabilities by refurbishing its previously shelved nuclear facilities and uranium enrichment activities.

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The tough comments marked a shift in tone by the Obama administration, which, along with others in the international community, faces the challenge of making sense of the high-stakes posturing from North Korea.

U.S. officials dealt with provocations by Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, for more than a decade, but the landscape changed when the young leader assumed power one year ago.

Now, national security and foreign policy analysts are split on whether the latest threats are just the bluster of an inexperienced new head of state or truly indicative of an escalation toward a possible military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.

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Either way, foreign policy insiders point to a series of little-reported factors, both domestic and external, that might help explain the ratcheting-up of tensions by North Korea’s leader.

Cheehyung Kim, a North Korea analyst and historian at Duke University, said the nation’s history and domestic politics have placed significant pressure on Kim Jong-un to “establish his legitimacy in the eyes of North Korea’s ruling class.”

Mr. Kim noted that April 11 will mark the one-year anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power in Pyongyang and “he has little to show for it except the fact that he’s at least, in speech, standing up to superpowers.”

April also carries internal political significance because it is the birthday month of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, who led North Korea from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994.

Unexpected world events of the past two years also have stressed Pyongyang’s international alliances just as the nation grows accustomed to its new leaders.

Once-strong ties with the government of Syria have been strained by the ongoing civil war in that country.

Similarly, a revolution in Libya brought an end to North Korea’s alliance with Moammar Gadhafi.

Also, the past year’s uptick in relations between Washington and Myanmar has resulted in an end of the Asian country’s military aid to Pyongyang.

“Those partners are gone,” Mr. Kim said. “Globally, North Korea is more economically isolated and vulnerable.”

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