Wednesday, October 25, 2006


It's Wednesday, and the U.S. hasn't agreed to direct talks with North Korea, and the U.N. hasn't backed off from recently-strengthened sanctions, so what's Pyongyang supposed to do? Why, take a predictable page out of the DPRK playbook and issue another war warning. In its most recent missive, Kim Jong-il's regime warned South Korea against joining the U.S.-led sanctions program, saying such action would be a "serious provocation" that could lead to war.

For those keeping score at home, this isn't the first time we've heard such bluster from Pyongyang. A similar warning was issued earlier this month, just prior to North Korea's (mostly) failed nuclear test. With the sanctions effort gathering some momentum, North Korea is resorting to familiar divide-and-conquer tactics, pressuring South Korea to continue its food shipments to Pyongyang, and pressure the U.S. to negotiate directly with the North Koreans. Seoul may continue the food deliveries (President Roh remains committed to his failed "Sunshine Policy), but the odds of short-term bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States are exactly zero.

Fact is, we shouldn't read too much into North Korea's latest threat. This time of year, most of the DPRK military is still engaged in agricultural activities (read: bringing in the harvest), and they won't start their Winter Training Cycle (WTC) until next month. Beyond missile launches, another nuclear test, a skirmish along the Northern Limit Line, or a pot-shot at a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, North Korea isn't in much of a position for military adverturism right now. That may change in a couple of months, particularly if this year's WTC proves more active than in the recent past. But over the coming weeks, gathering this year's meager harvest will remain the military's #1 mission.

On a slightly more ominous note, China is now erecting a massive fence along its border with North Korea, designed to keep refugees from entering Chinese territory. The project appears to be moving along rapidly, suggesting that Beijing sees no short-term improvements in the DPRK. Indeed, if harvest projections are accurate--and humanitarian aid is curtailed--the number of North Koreans attempting to flee will far surpass previous totals. And that is something that Beijing appears determined to prevent.

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