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North Korea cranks up the rhetoric

Analysis: As North Korea announces plans to launch satellite, tensions rise.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (C) visits to the Hoeryong Daesung Tobacco Factory in Hoeryong in North Hamgyong province of North Korea in this undated picture released by North Korea's official news agency KCNA Feb. 25, 2009. KCNA did not state expressly the date when the picture was taken. North Korean leader Kim has been touring the province where the country has been preparing for a rocket launch, the North's media said on February 25, 2009, in what a South Korean daily said could be a precursor of a launch. (KCNA North Korea/Reuters).

SEOUL — “Noisy” is a good word to describe the Korean peninsula this week, as Pyongyang continued to cook up new ways to bother its longtime enemy to the south.

Angry works, too. So does shrill.

Today, a United Nations official said that North Korea has given notice of its plans to launch a satellite next month. 

Pyongyang had been saying for weeks that it will launch a communications satellite for peaceful purposes — a claim refuted by those outside North Korea, who believe the satellite is a long-range missile with a reach as long as 6,700 kilometers, or 4163 miles. Such a missile could put parts of Alaska and Hawaii in danger. Washington and Seoul have protested such a launch. 

Before the news of the impending satellite launch, North Korea was already making noise about military drills conducted  by the United States and South Korea. Here's how North Korea's Foreign Ministry put it March 11, after the United States and South Korea pressed ahead with joint military drills:

"The new administration of the U.S. is now working hard to infringe upon the sovereignty of the DPRK by force of arms in collusion with the South Korean puppet bellicose forces."  

The DPRK, or Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), also screeched that the drills were "nuclear war exercises designed to mount a preemptive attack," and promised it would "take every necessary measure to protect its sovereignty."

The heated rhetoric isn't due to a change in leadership in Pyongyang: North Korean state-run media reported that Kim Jong-il was unanimously reelected in elections held March 8 with turnout, it said, of 100 percent.

But one thing is clear: actions by North Korea take dramatic turns based on what Washington and Seoul are doing. 

It is widely believed here that Pyongyang's latest threats are an attempt to grab the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama, and to protest the actions of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who has taken a hard line against the North.

Although Pyongyang typically ratchets up its rhetoric during these annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises, it's rarely taken concrete steps to deliver on its threats.

This time, it did.

The morning the U.S.-South Korea military drills were set to begin, Pyongyang cut off cross-border military communication lines — used to exchange information about people moving between the countries — effectively stranding some 500 South Korean civilians in the North. A day later, the North allowed the South Korean civilians to travel, but it still hasn't opened the military lines.

Ahead of the drills, the North warned it would not guarantee the safety of civilian airliners passing through its airspace. South Korean carriers didn't test the reclusive state.

They immediately re-routed their flights.