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North Korea lashes out at the US and South. How big a threat?

Renewed threats from North Korea's regime have given rise to questions about how far the North Koreans will go in carrying them out.

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People watch a TV news showing file footage of a North Korean rocket carried during a military parade, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday. How serious are the North Korean threats against both the US and South Korea this week and how far will the North Koreans go in carrying them out?

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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An outpouring of North Korean rhetoric against both the US and South Korea this week raises the inevitable questions: How serious are the North Korean threats and how far will the North Koreans go in carrying them out?

North Korea’s latest threat of “strong countermeasures” against South Korea if the South supports UN sanctions against the North actually worries some analysts more than the North’s claim to be testing a nuclear device capable of hitting the US.  

No one believes North Korea is about to “target” the US in the near future with more than rhetorical volleys, but North Korea has staged numerous “incidents” against South Korea and might well have some more in mind.

“The North Koreans are playing with fire,” says David Straub, associate director of the Korean studies program at Stanford University. “It’s more dangerous than the nuclear threat.”

North Korea’s Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea blasted South Korea in language that strikes observers as anything but peaceful.

“There will be no more discussion on denuclearization between the North and South in the future,” it said in a statement. "If the puppet group of traitors takes a direct part in the UN 'sanctions,' it said, "the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] will take strong physical counter-measures against it." Indeed, the statement went on " 'Sanctions' mean a war and a declaration of war against us."

The fear is that North Korea will challenge the South with surprise attacks similar to those in 2010, when a torpedo sank a South Korean Navy vessel, killing 46 sailors, and shells fired from the North Korean coast killed four people on a small South Korean island. 

The North Koreans appear to be testing the will of South Korea’s president-elect, Park Geun-hye, daughter of the long-ruling South Korean dictator, Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979. Many observers believe that Ms. Park, who will be inaugurated next month, is likely be a tougher leader than outgoing President Lee Kyung-bak, also a conservative but reluctant to act militarily against the North. (Read Donald Kirk's reporting on South Korea's first woman president here)

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Under Park, says Mr. Straub, “there’s a significant possibility the South Koreans will respond.”

At the same time, analysts expect North Korea to increase tensions by conducting another underground test of a nuclear device. North Korea conducted nuclear tests twice previously – in 2006 and 2009 – soon after test-firing long-range missiles.

A third nuclear test would “fit in with a familiar pattern," says Tony Namkung, a scholar and consultant who visited North Korea twice this month – first with Eric Schmidt, the Google executive chairman, and again with executives from the Associated Press, for which he serves as a consultant on its bureau in Pyongyang.

Mr. Namkung worries that the next test will be more advanced than the previous two. Many analysts believe the device will use highly enriched uranium, not the plutonium at the core of previous devices.

Still, he senses that “they’re loosening up in Pyongyang,” creating a freer atmosphere. “There are signs of change” toward normal lifestyles, he says.

Kim Ki-sam, a former officer with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, predicts the North will test a nuclear device before Park’s inauguration. “Their tactic is to raise tension,” says Mr. Kim. “Then they compromise.”

He believes “the situation will be very bad to appearances,” he adds, “but that doesn’t mean the overall situation will be worse.” 

Choi Jin-wook, a long-time North Korea expert at the Korean Institute of National Unification in Seoul, believes one central aim of North Korean strategists surrounding the young leader Kim Jong-un is a desire for respect. “They want to make clear they are a nuclear power,” he says. 

L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, takes a somewhat sanguine view of the furor over North Korea. "It' s the North Korean playbook, it's what they've been doing for 20 years," he says.He believes North Korea indeed is getting ready for another nuclear test – the reason for the rhetoric – but does not take the escalation of the rhetoric very seriously. "We need to know what they've always been saying," he says. "It's cut and paste." 


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