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A Big, Booming Cry for More Attention?

Feelings of rejection led to North Korea's missile launch, analysts say. The nation is known for coming up with a crisis when it needs one.

July 06, 2006|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — At first glance, North Korea's missile launches were an audacious step at a time when the international community was urging restraint.

In fact, the move came from a well-thumbed playbook that has been passed down from father to son, starting with the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, and now in the hands of leader Kim Jong Il.

Such has been the North's modus operandi for decades: To solve a crisis one needs to create a crisis.

The North Koreans' crisis was the feeling that they were being ignored by the United States.

The isolated regime had asked repeatedly for one-on-one meetings with Bush administration officials and last month went as far as inviting chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill to Pyongyang, the North's capital. Among other things, they wanted to ask for the release of $24 million in North Korean deposits frozen by a bank in Macao that is under investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department.

But the North Koreans were rebuffed by the administration, which instead urged them to come back to six-nation talks aimed at reining in the North's nuclear program.

"They felt rejected and ignored," said a South Korean diplomat who spoke to North Korean counterparts recently as part of an effort by Seoul to derail the missile launches. The diplomat, who asked not to be named, said the North Koreans interpreted the response to the Hill invitation as a "hostile policy by the Bush administration that left them no choice."

The many warnings against the launch issued by the administration, along with similar concerns voiced by Japan, China, South Korea and Russia, were taken by the North as a challenge, experts said.

"It was a matter of their dignity. They would have lost face if they didn't launch," said Nam Sung-wook, a South Korean foreign policy analyst at Korea University.

More than just pride, the North Koreans' bluster is part of the glue that keeps their improbable country intact years after so many other communist regimes have collapsed.

North Koreans are taught that their missiles are capable of reaching the continental United States and striking terror in the hearts of Americans.

North Korean defector Kim Kil Son, who worked in a missile unit, has told American experts that he witnessed a 1997 visit in which Kim Jong Il offered "on the spot guidance" and boasted that "the American bastards couldn't do anything" to protect themselves from the long-range Taepodong missile.

Besides the Taepodong 2, which reportedly failed to launch properly Wednesday, North Korea also tested at least six short- to medium-range missiles over the Sea of Japan.

Yang Sang-mook, an international relations specialist with the South Korean National Assembly, said he believed that domestic political considerations were the primary motive for North Korea following through on the missile launches.

"Kim Jong Il had to show the military that he has got guts. They really needed to get out a fireworks show for the domestic audience," Yang said.

There were also business considerations.

Missiles are one of North Korea's few profitable exports. Until recently, when the Bush administration cracked down, missiles brought in about $500 million a year, mostly from Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Syria and, until the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq.

North Korea has long been infamous for its ability to come up with a crisis on demand. In a 1955 book still widely read by diplomats dealing with North Korea, "How Communists Negotiate," one of the negotiators of the armistice that ended the Korean War, U.S. Navy Adm. C. Turner Joy, described how the North Koreans would create incidents to gain advantage in negotiations.

Often, they have used provocations as a means to launching talks.

The logic may be as flawed as that of a boy pulling the hair of a girl he likes, but it seems to have worked for the North Koreans.

Veteran North Korea watchers recall that the country's 1993 launch of a medium-range Rodong missile was part of the impetus that brought about a 1994 agreement under which the United States and allies promised to provide energy assistance in return for a missile freeze.

After the test firing of a Taepodong 1 over Japan in 1998, the Clinton administration launched a new diplomatic initiative on North Korea, resulting in the visits of then-Defense Secretary William Perry and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang.

"This is typical North Korean brinkmanship to get attention," said Park Jin, a leading conservative in South Korea's National Assembly and a political scientist.

But Park said the current situation is more serious than that of 1998 because the North Koreans have since developed nuclear capability. "They've played this game before, but it is getting more dangerous."

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