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N. Korean Statements: Brinkmanship or Serious?

North Korea - amid tense international negotiations last month on its banned nuclear weapons program - threatens to conduct a nuclear test. Once again, the United States and other nations were forced to guess at the notoriously unpredictable North Koreans' real intentions: were they serious, or was this just a case of brinkmanship? Analyzing such statements presents a major challenge to the world as it tries resolve the latest crisis involving Pyongyang.

Verbal attacks and ominous warnings from the North Korean media ebb and flow depending on the state of Pyongyang's relations with the outside world at any given moment. The statements have been coming thick and fast since October, when the Bush administration revealed that North Korean officials had admitted they were working on developing nuclear weapons.

The secret program violated several of Pyongyang's agreements with Washington and the international community. Washington demanded an immediate and verifiable dismantling of the program.

Since then, the North has repeatedly accused the United States of plotting to attack it. It has warned it would retaliate fiercely, against American forces in South Korea, against South Korea itself, against Japan. It has warned the United Nations not to get involved in the dispute. It has warned other nations not to impose economic sanctions against it. Any such moves, the North Koreans have said, would be treated as an act of war and responded to accordingly.

After months of bluster and warnings, Pyongyang agreed to join six-nation talks in Beijing late last month, and the world kept its fingers crossed. For three days, China, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas and the United States laid out their positions to one another. A Chinese official said all six had agreed to attend a second round of talks in the near future. Then North Korea suddenly pronounced further talks useless.

Interpreting North Korean acts and statements is no easy task, and governments and political analysts frequently disagree on their meaning.

Derek Mitchell, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the North's wild claims and threats are often empty. He notes that despite its public pronouncements, Pyongyang has quietly told Beijing it will be back at the table when a second round of talks takes place.

"For the North Koreans, rhetoric is cheap. They tend to bluster and say all kinds of dramatic things in order to get attention," said Mr. Mitchell. "But it really is the actions you have to follow and that determines how serious they are. You have to take some of this bluster as typical North Korean activity, try to interpret it and then watch what they actually do."

North Korean statements are more than mere rhetoric, however. They also illustrate the different - and possibly dangerous - way Pyongyang sees the world.

While attacking foreign leaders and states, North Korean broadcasts regularly lavish effusive praise on dictator Kim Jong Il. A powerful personality cult has been built around Mr. Kim, who is credited with innumerable accomplishments and daring feats, from composing operas to flying airplanes to solving global problems - all for the sake of his nation's well-being and for world peace.

In early September, just after the six-party talks in Beijing ended, Pyongyang alerted the world that an important statement was coming. Several hours later, it was announced that Kim Jong Il had been re-elected North Korea's defense chief, the most powerful position in the country.

The world shrugged: no one had expected anything different. But Balbina Hwang, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says that while the outside world saw Mr. Kim's reappointment as nothing new, within North Korea it was a critically important decision.

"From North Korea's perspective, there could be nothing more important than another act legitimizing Kim Jong Il's powe," said Ms. Hwang. "Yet we are so fearful about the nuclear issue that we are expecting it to be announcing a nuclear test. So that does really show that things are out of whack, perceptions both that the world has about North Korea and perceptions that North Korea has about itself and its relation with the rest of the world."

Mr. Mitchell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that Pyongyang often gives the world mixed messages, which are not only confusing but which can delay the resolution of important issues. "You cannot let this draw out too far for too long. It could be a North Korean tactic to let this draw out indefinitely to get aid and assistance even as they develop nuclear weapons," he says. "You have to be both patient and vigilant about North Korean tactics."

So far, the United States and its allies have reacted patiently to this typical North Korean strategy.

South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun says such messages are a pressure tactic aimed at securing a better deal at the negotiating table. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has dismissed North Korea's threat to conduct a nuclear test - but he also warned that "threats and truculent statements that are designed to try to frighten the international community" could hamper the search for resolution.

Analysts say that if North Korea actually did carry out a nuclear test, it could cost the country its only friends - China and Russia - and in the end could jeopardize the Kim Jong Il government.