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North Korea Warns Against Criticism at Nuclear Security Summit

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-bak during a joint press conference following their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, March 25, 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-bak during a joint press conference following their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, March 25, 2012.
William Ide

Only days before the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea began, North Korea issued a stern warning not to criticize its nuclear program, saying through its state media that any inclusion of it in a statement would be a "declaration of war."

Such threats from Pyongyang are not uncommon. North Korea often warns of war when it is facing international criticism. Now, there is growing concern about Pyongyang's plan to carry out a missile launch next month, only weeks after it appeared to have agreed to end such tests.

Analysts say that although North Korea likely will be on the agenda at the Nuclear Summit, it is unclear what role it will play in the main discussions.

Richard Bush, director of the Center for North East Asia Policy Studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, says that although North Korea’s warning will be regarded as a firing of "empty cannons," it is likely that Pyongyang will find its way into the summit's concluding statement because it "fits the interest of the host government [i.e., Seoul]."

Abraham Denmark, Asia-Pacific security advisor at the Center for Naval Analyses outside Washington, says Pyongyang will not be overlooked.  "North Korea represents the greatest challenge to the stability of Northeast Asia, and will rightfully be a top issue for leaders to discuss at the summit," he says.  "In fact, North Korea's bellicosity and its recent behavior makes it all the more an appropriate subject for discussion."

In addition to its threat of war, Pyongyang recently said it plans to launch a satellite next month.  The announcement came shortly after North Korea agreed in February to suspend nuclear tests, long-range ballistic missile launches and other nuclear-related activities.

Despite its insistence that the satellite launch is "scientific" in nature, the United States and other nations say it is being used to test North Korea's ballistic missile capabilities.

Georgetown University political scientist Balbina Hwang says the leaders' statement at the summit should reflect the content of the talks.  "Including truthful statements about North Korea, whether or not it displeases North Korea," she says.

At the last Nuclear Security Summit two years ago, North Korea was not mentioned in the final communiqué.  And the reclusive communist state received only minor attention on the sidelines of the meeting.  During that summit, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak invited then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to attend this year's summit in Seoul, if Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

That did not happen, and the North Korean leader died last December.  This year's summit comes at a time when there is much uncertainty about North Korea, which is in the midst of a leadership transition.

For many analysts, North Korea's rhetoric fits an old pattern.  The threat of war and plans for a missile launch are a reflection of domestic politics in North Korea, says Abe Denmark.  "Pyongyang is still establishing modes of behavior and decision making after the death of Kim Jong Il.  And it appears that leadership transition dynamics are being expressed in its foreign policy," he says.

Balbina Hwang says the satellite launch and agreement in February, while contradictory, are part of Pyongyang's tactics to draw fine lines of separation between its provocative activities.

"Although the U.S. government position is that a satellite launch was covered under the February 29 moratorium, the North Koreans are clearly trying to test that proposition in the arena of international opinion," she says.  "It is also a clever way for North Korea to throw the ball back into the U.S. court, as now, if the deal falls apart, the North Koreans can blame U.S. action or inaction, as the case may be."

Analyst Richard Bush agrees that Pyongyang's actions might be part of a pattern, but that they also might have been a miscalculation that the United States would accept its claim that a missile test and satellite launch are different.

"Pyongyang may also have been trying to influence the April South Korea National Assembly elections," Bush says.  "And I am sure that Pyongyang is annoyed enough that it is South Korea that is hosting this high-profile conference."

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