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North Korean leader paints himself into a corner

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during a plenary meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 31, 2013.

Korean Central News Agency/AP

The regime of Kim Jong-un keeps loudly declaring that the Korean Peninsula is on the brink of renewed war. Seemingly intent on making that prediction come true – but without yet firing a shot – North Korea finds a new "we're really serious about this" precipice to climb onto almost daily.

South Korea's official Yonhap news wire reported Thursday that North Korea had moved one or more Musudan intermediate-range missiles – which, with a range of 3,500 kilometres, are capable of targeting Japan or U.S. military bases on the Pacific island of Guam – into firing position on its east coast. "There are signs the North could fire off Musudan missiles any time soon," Yonhap quoted an unnamed intelligence official as saying.

The situation is tense enough that Zhang Liangui, a top Chinese expert on North Korea, said this week that he sees "a 70- to 80-per-cent chance that a war will happen" on the peninsula.

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While few others believe full-blown war in imminent, it's hard to foresee an easy end to the standoff. Particularly since the 30-year-old Mr. Kim – having told his troops and population that the country is on the brink of a great war to beat off the "imperialist aggressors" and unify Korea – needs some kind of victory to show for it all.

"Kim Jong-un is too young and too inexperienced. He's struggling to gain complete control over the military and to win their loyalty," said Kim Hyun-hee, a former North Korean spy who was convicted of helping blow up a South Korean passenger plane in 1987, killing 115 people. Ms. Kim was later pardoned after it was determined she had been brainwashed.

Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at an undisclosed location in Seoul, Ms. Kim suggested the regime's bluster was actually a sign of its weakness. "North Korea is using its nuclear program to keep its people in line and to push South Korea and the United States for concessions," she said.

The United States and South Korea have repeatedly called on China – North Korea's main trading partner and only diplomatic ally – to rein in its unpredictable satellite. But even Beijing seems frustrated with its neighbour's recent behaviour. China warned against the nuclear test that Pyongyang conducted on Feb. 12, but saw that advice ignored.

On Thursday, an editorial in the official People's Daily warned North Korea not to "misjudge" the situation.

Deng Yuwen, a Chinese political analyst and former top editor at the influential Study Times newspaper, said in a phone interview that Beijing was unlikely to come to Pyongyang's aid in the event of a war started by North Korea.

But it doesn't appear Beijing is ready to completely desert its old ally. Early in the crisis, Mr. Deng wrote an editorial that bluntly argued that "China should abandon North Korea." He was fired from his post as a result.

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A "victory" that would bolster Mr. Kim domestically could come in the form of forcing the United States to the bargaining table to make the kind of aid-for-disarmament deal that cash-starved Pyongyang is believed to crave. Or it could come via a minor military skirmish, akin to the 2010 shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, near the disputed sea border between the two sides.

Neither scenario will be simple. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrives in Seoul on Friday, is expected to reiterate that no deals can be made in the face of the kind of threats Pyongyang has made over the past month. Washington has backed up that message by sending nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth bombers to take part in joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

"North Korea … with its bellicose rhetoric, its actions, has been skating very close to a dangerous line," U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said. "Our country is fully prepared to deal with any contingency, any action that North Korea may take or any provocation that they may instigate."

Meanwhile, the South Korean military, which acted with restraint after the island attack in 2010, has warned that it will hit back militarily – and hard – if the North again strikes its territory.

So what happens if the North doesn't get what it wants? The truth is, no one knows for sure. Andrei Lankov, a veteran North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University, argues the United States and South Korea should remain calm and ignore the threats from Pyongyang, negotiating later when the atmosphere is cooler. But, he acknowledged in an e-mail exchange, "the risks of incidental confrontation are present."

When Seoul and its 10.5 million residents are just over 50 kilometres from the border – and within easy range of North Korea's conventional artillery – even a short clash could have horrendous consequences.

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The expected firing of a Musudan missile would extend the test of nerves that began two months ago when North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, in defiance of United Nations restrictions. That was followed by a declaration that Pyongyang had torn up the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, and threats to target the U.S. with nuclear missiles.

In recent days, Pyongyang has closed the symbolic Kaesong industrial park, which saw upward of 50,000 North Korean labourers work at factories owned by South Korean firms, and warned foreigners in South Korea that they should leave because of the likelihood of "thermonuclear" war.

Patriot anti-missile batteries are now deployed in Japan and Guam in expectation of a missile launch in the coming days. South Korea said it was readying naval destroyers, an early warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has warned the North Korean regime that its "only path to survival" lies in giving up its nuclear weapons and returning to dialogue. But Pyongyang signalled again this week that its nuclear program is not up for discussion.

"Our nukes are the life of the nation, which can be bartered for nothing," read an editorial appearing on the English-language website of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper. "Forcing us to give up nukes differs little from demanding us of giving up [our] life."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More


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