N Korea-game plan

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, march 8 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's 20-something leader, Kim Jong-un, is apparently seeking a higher-stakes game with the United States than his father did as he believes he has more bargaining chips, an American expert said Friday.

A barrage of strongly worded military threats by North Korea this week reflects Kim's bolder intentions, according to Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a defense-related research organization in Alexandria, Virginia.

Angry over the U.N. Security Council's move towards new sanctions on Pyongyang for its Feb. 12 nuclear test, the communist regime has threatened to launch a "preemptive nuclear strike," abolish the 1953 Armistice Agreement and the 1991 nonaggression deal with South Korea.

In the latest statement, Pyongyang said it has put a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile on standby. North Korea succeeded in its long-range rocket launch in December, followed by a third underground nuclear test.

North Korea is notorious for its bellicose rhetoric, but the tone this time has gone extreme. Some dismiss it as bluffing, while others express concern over an actual armed clash.

Gause emphasized that the North's recent verbal threats should not be disregarded as "normal bombast."

"It reflects an evolving strategy by Pyongyang to engage with the United State more directly," he told Yonhap News Agency.

Under the leadership of the late Kim Jong-il, North Korea issued similar threats to scrap the armistice and nonaggression agreements.

But the recent threats are different from those during the Kim Jong-il era, said Gause, the author of "Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State."

"This latest withdraw appears more unconditional, not semantic tricks," he said, adding Pyongyang's announcement to cut a direct telephone "hotline" with Seoul, often used for crisis management, is meant to "underline the seriousness of this threat."

The young leader is trying to play a gamble with the U.S. in a bolder style than his father, Gause noted.

The U.S. and its allies have placed a focus on denuclearizing North Korea but Pyongyang has been more interested in negotiating a peace regime and in its goal of being acknowledged as a nuclear power.

Gause said the North's ruler would not walk back from the current strategy as doing so, especially under pressure from the outside world, would undermine his legitimacy and leadership. Gause said. Pyongyang is continuing to pass the ball into the U.S. court.

It's hard to predict whether an armed clash will take place anytime soon. If history is any guide, soaring tensions on the peninsula may belie more chances of diplomatic efforts to restart talks.

A familiar cycle is North Korea's provocations, U.N. sanctions, Pyongyang's angry response, a certain cooling-off period and resumption of a dialogue mode.

Immediately after the U.N. council's adoption of a fresh resolution on North Korea, China's U.N. envoy, Li Baodong, said Thursday's vote was one step in a "hard, tedious" diplomatic process to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

On a trip to the Middle East earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also expressed hope that North Korea's leader will engage in "legitimate dialogue, legitimate negotiations."

Gause said former NBA star Dennis Rodman's trip to North Korea last week may serve as a crucial signal. After meeting the North Korean leader, Rodman quoted him as saying he wants a phone call from President Barack Obama.

"The U.S. should explore ways in the future of engaging North Korea. It should begin with back channel meetings," Gause said. "I thought the Rodman trip was actually very interesting and useful."

He said sports provide a way of engaging in a non-threatening manner. Although North Korea would not discuss denuclearization for now, substantive negotiations are possible once confidence is built up on both sides, he pointed out.

What's important, he added, is there should be no daylight between Seoul and Washington.

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