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Why Now For North Korea's Provocation?

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Why Now For North Korea's Provocation?

Asia

Why Now For North Korea's Provocation?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Many people are trying to read between the lines about what's happening in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang. In the past, weakness and uncertainty have sparked provocations against South Korea, and that may be what's going on now. The North is struggling with extreme food shortages, and the countrys leader, Kim Jong-il, is trying to insure that his son takes over from him as the countrys next leader. NPRs Mike Shuster has this look at what all of that means.

MIKE SHUSTER: North Korea claims its shelling of a small island off the west coast of the Korean peninsula was the response to South Korean military exercises, as well as fire from the South Korean side. But this was a well-known military exercise that occurs every year, says Daniel Sneider, a Korea expert at Stanford Universitys Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Mr. DANIEL SNEIDER (Korea expert, Stanfords Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center): The North Koreans artillery fire on the South Korean island seems to be entirely unprovoked, not a response to any specific incident, but maybe timed to the exercise in order to give them the cover of claiming that they were responding, in some way, to South Korean actions.

SHUSTER: Sneider points out that North Korea has engaged in provocative actions like this before, usually when the leadership in Pyongyang felt itself weak and threatened. He believes that is the case today, starting with Kim Jong-ils effort this year to install his son as North Koreas next leader.

Mr. SNEIDER: Theres a weakness associated with trying to secure his succession and theres clearly a severe economic situation, an ongoing economic crisis in North Korea, but one thats taken on a very even more exacerbated form, recently, in terms of food shortages. These have been reported by the United Nations World Food Program and others.

SHUSTER: At the same time recently, there has been much more contact between the governments of North and South Korea with North Korea pressing the south for aid in the form of food, fertilizer, and money. South Koreas conservative government has been reluctant to help.

Where the United States stands is not entirely clear. The Obama administration does not look like it is eager to return to talks with North Korea, with a State Department spokesperson saying, yesterday, the U.S. has no interest in rewarding North Koreas bad behavior with the return to negotiations.

The U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth was in Beijing when the North Korean attack occurred. He first reiterated U.S. support for South Korea.

Mr. STEPHEN BOSWORTH (U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea): The U.S. strongly condemns this aggression on the part of North Korea and we stand firmly with our allies.

SHUSTER: But then Bosworth also indicated there is some interest on the part of the U.S. to resume negotiations with North Korea. Thats what North Korea expected says Evans Revere, a former State Department specialist on Korea.

Mr. EVANS REVERE (Former State Department specialist on Korea): The North Koreans, in the past, have tried to ratchet up crises on the eve of talks in order to gain, in their view, some sort of negotiating advantage, and I think this attack may be part of such an effort, again, as was the tours that they gave to visiting Americans of these nuclear facilities.

SHUSTER: The tours to visiting Americans occurred just last week when a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory was allowed into a new nuclear facility in North Korea dedicated to uranium enrichment. This facility was unknown before his visit and is clear evidence that North Korea, for at least the last two years and possibly longer, has been developing the capacity to enrich uranium in secret.

All of this taken together, says Revere, suggests strongly that North Korea is once again is using brinksmanship to wring concessions from its adversaries.

Mr. REVERE: Crisis means concessions, to the extent that they can exacerbate a sense of crisis in the atmosphere, between themselves and South Korea, the United States, and others. It compels those countries to come to the table in order to stop the sort of bad behavior that the North Koreans are engaged in.

SHUSTER: With its artillery attack, coupled with revelations about an expanding nuclear program, North Korea has certainly heightened the tension and aggravated a sense of crisis. For the moment, there is no certainty this crisis will lead to renewed negotiations. And that could heighten the tension even further.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.

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