The National, Thursday 04th April, 2013
Every spring, cherry trees blossom in Washington, and North Korea’s bluster and rhetoric reaches a fiery pitch.
Just as predictable as the changing seasons is Pyongyang’s reaction to the annual military exercise between South Korea and the US, known as Foal Eagle.
The US says it has detected no signs that North Korea is actively preparing to go on the offensive – there has been no large-scale mobilisation of forces, for example.
Pyongyang’s threats are usually conditional – if there is a real danger of a US attack, there will be a response, or a pre-emptive strike.
The tension usually goes down when the exercises end – until the next round of theatre and threats. But the possibility of an accident provoking a military confrontation is always real.
North Korea has been a vexing problem for Washington for years, and so far the Obama administration has also failed to successfully engage Pyongyang and break this cycle – or curb its nuclear programme.
This year, the threats emanating form North Korea have sounded even more bombastic for several reasons.
There’s a new young leader sitting in Pyongyang who’s still asserting himself domestically and consolidating his power.
And South Korea has just elected its new president, Park Geun-hye – the country’s first female leader. So, Kim is – no doubt – testing her too.
The US reaction has remained mostly the same – with a few variations, officials in Washington repeat the line that North Korea’s actions are not helpful and only further isolate the reclusive nation. There seem to be no creative ideas on the horizon.
During the Clinton administration, the US repeatedly cancelled military exercises to assuage Pyongyang’s fears and defuse tension.
But more recently, Washington has matched the intensity of Pyongyang’s rhetoric with a display of hardware.
After a deluge of 20 threats in a just a few weeks, the Obama administration also dispatched B-2 stealth bombers over the Korean peninsula.
The move was also meant to decrease pressure on South Korea to take unilateral action to sound tough in the face of its northern brethren.
But every attempt by the US and the international community to hold Pyongyang accountable, with sanctions for example, leads to even more erratic behaviour by the North Koreans.
And every time the US ignores Pyongyang’s pleas for attention, responding with a resolve to continue military exercises, the North Koreans are further infuriated – partly because their thinking is driven by a different rationale.
They perceive US-South Korean defensive military exercises as potentially offensive, and analysts say the North Koreans believe their nuclear weapons are the only thing keeping them safe from a US attack.
Obama spoke of his willingness to extend a hand if America’s foes were willing to unclench their fist.
Efforts to restart the six-party talks, which stalled in 2009, have failed.
Pyongyang’s behaviour makes it difficult for Obama to be bold and engage in open, direct talks with the North Koreans without risking being lambasted by critics for caving in to threats and legitimising Kim. – BBC