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North Korea Finds Itself Increasingly Isolated After Missile Tests

  • Kurt Achin

As North Korean diplomats prepare to take part in a regional security forum in Malaysia, Pyongyang is finding itself isolated not just by its usual critics, but also by some of its usually friendly neighbors.

North Korean state media on Tuesday lashed out at U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday, calling her a "political imbecile."

Rice described North Korea as a "completely irresponsible" state after it test-fired seven missiles without warning early this month.

Those missile launches are expected to be the primary focus at a Southeast Asian security forum in Malaysia later this week, which Rice and senior North Korean officials are expected to attend. Because of the launches, Pyongyang is finding itself beset by angry neighbors.

Japan imposed transportation restrictions on North Korea after the launches, and may add economic sanctions. China, Pyongyang's main patron, supported a United Nations resolution condemning the launches, and may be pursuing financial sanctions because of alleged North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering.

And South Korea, which has tried to engage North Korea for several years, suspended aid shipments to its impoverished neighbor.

Peter Beck, the Northeast Asia director of the International Crisis Group research organization, says he is surprised that North Korea has not even secured sympathy from South Korea.

"I really expected the North to do a bit better job of what the Koreans call 'minjok giri', or 'Koreans only' - playing to this troubled but nevertheless long-lost brother. But they really haven't. In fact they've done everything they can to offend virtually everyone in the South," he said.

North Korea has defended the missile tests as important for its national defense and says they were conducted safely. Pyongyang in the past has said it needs missiles and nuclear weapons to defend itself from what it considers a threat of invasion by the United States. Washington denies having any intention of attacking North Korea.

Kim Byun-ho, an expert on the two Koreas with Seoul National University, says South Korean public sentiment toward the North has taken a turn for the worse.

He says even humanitarian groups that usually set aside politics are so disappointed with North Korea that they are becoming hesitant about future aid efforts.

Russia and the United States have joined China, Japan and South Korea in pushing Pyongyang to return to six-nation talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs. Pyongyang refuses to do so until Washington lifts sanctions imposed on North Korean enterprises because of alleged financial crimes.

When he arrived in Malaysia Tuesday for the regional gathering, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said he hoped to arrange informal six-party talks this week to help Pyongyang end its isolation. However, Ban indicated he was not optimistic of even being able to meet alone with his North Korean counterpart.

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