- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

SEOUL | How does one deal with a country that seems to thrive on tension and self-isolation?

This is the predicament facing policymakers as North Korea threatened Wednesday to carry out more nuclear and missile tests unless the U.N. Security Council apologizes for condemning Pyongyang’s April 5 missile launch.

The North Koreans went further and said they would start a uranium enrichment program. The United States in 2002 accused North Korea of having such a program, a claim that North Korea denies.

The threats are the latest in a series of confrontational moves by the isolated communist state. Besides the missile launch, Pyongyang has expelled international nuclear inspectors and says it has resumed making nuclear weapons from plutonium.

It has also seized a South Korean citizen in the Kaesong joint industrial complex and two American reporters on or near the North Korea-China border. All remain in North Korean custody.

Specialists on North Korea say the country requires an outside threat, particularly as it prepares for succession from leader Kim Jong-il and more North Koreans become aware of the disparity between their impoverished nation and the wealthy South.

“Political reality is forcing them to justify their existence by ratcheting up tension,” said Brian Myers, a North Korea specialist at Dongseo University. “It is all they have to offer their people.”

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood warned North Korea on Wednesday that “these threats only further isolate the North.”

But “isolation is what they want; it is not talking in any way that resonates with them,” said Daniel Pinkston, who heads the International Crisis Groups Seoul office.

Kim Tae-woo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis cited two reasons why international leverage does not work. “North Korea does not care much about the quality of life of its own people, and for the North Korean government, the goal is protection of its system.”

Military solutions, such as strikes on nuclear facilities, are too risky to consider, Mr. Pinkston said, because North Korea would retaliate against Seoul.

South Korea is mulling whether to take an active role in the Washington-led Proliferation Security Initiative - a move that could require Southern vessels to board Northern ships on the high seas. Some experts say it would send a clear message to Pyongyang, while others think it would increase tension for no real benefit.

With North Korea boycotting multilateral talks, diplomatic leverage is largely absent.

A senior Chinese official told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that “patience is still needed. There has been progress coupled with setbacks from time to time.”

The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, referred to a Chinese saying that sometimes when mountains block your way, you continue along the path nevertheless and a “small pass” through the mountains appears. He expressed confidence that six-nation nuclear talks would eventually resume.

“I cannot imagine what North Korea could do to really infuriate China,” said Andrei Lankov of Seouls Kookmin University. “It might exist - such as selling nuclear devices on the open market - but it would have to be really outrageous.”

Kim Byung-ki, a security expert at Korea University, said the only way to force China to act decisively against North Korea would be for Japan to build nuclear weapons, something Tokyo has so far refused to do.

“The reason North Korea cannot be changed diplomatically, militarily, socially and so on, is Chinese support,” he said.

• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington.

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