While waiting to exploit any sign of weakness in the Obama administration.
In its continuing escalation of threats and psychological warfare, North Korea warned foreigners to evacuate South Korea immediately. "We do not wish harm on foreigners in South Korea should there be a war," said the KCNA news agency, citing its Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee. "The situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching close to a thermo-nuclear war. Once a war is ignited on the peninsula, it will be an all-out war, a merciless, sacred, retaliatory war waged by the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)."
To demonstrate its seriousness, North Korea is now poised to launch a medium-range missile, which it had moved to its east coast. The regime led by the third in the dictatorial Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-un, is said to have made all the final preparations necessary to fire the missile - most likely in a test mode - as soon as this Wednesday. April 10th also happens to be the day that North Korea had given to foreign embassies to evacuate their personnel from North Korea's capital Pyongyang to ensure their safety.
This warning followed on the heels of North Korea's decision to suspend the last vestige of inter-Korean cooperation at the Kaesong joint industrial park just inside North Korea.
Kim Jong-un is going to the brink of war in an effort to consolidate his own power back home and wring concessions from South Korea and the West, as his father and grandfather had done before him. "Pyongyang has mastered the art of appearing unhinged in order to manipulate other powers," as Stratfor Global Intelligence put it. Only this time, the youthful inexperienced dictator is operating at the razor's edge with virtually no room for error. Kim Jong-un's father and grandfather had followed threatening but predictable patterns of behavior. They knew when to pull back, helped by a succession of U.S. presidents who gave in too easily to their demands in order to buy a temporary peace. Kim Jong-un may be trying the same tactic, but is feeling his way awkwardly and encountering more resistance from the international community.
China, which has the most economic leverage to move North Korea off its present war-like footing, has sharpened its own rhetoric aimed at the rogue regime and has backed the strongest United Nations sanctions to date. In a speech last Sunday, China's new president Xi Jinping leveled what many analysts regarded as a stinging, if indirect, slap at the North Korea regime. He said that "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain."
However, there is no evidence that China has done much of anything concrete beyond this to rein in Kim Jong-un. Nor do we know whether it will even take any steps to enforce the UN sanctions it voted for.
China wants to revert to the relatively stable conditions on the Korean Peninsula that had prevailed, with few major disruptions, from the end of the Korean War to the assumption of power by the unpredictable Kim Jong-un. Not wanting to see a sharp U.S. military build-up in the region in response to Kim Jong-un's provocations, China is still hoping that he will end up following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps and know when to pull back in time from the brink. However, China is aware of the limitations on how far it can pressure Kim Jong-un without causing unintended consequences.
China fears that pulling away North Korea's lifeline altogether will precipitate one of its worst nightmares - a complete collapse of North Korea, resulting in millions of refugees streaming over its border and a vacuum of power that could ultimately lead to a unified Korea allied with the United States.
The Obama administration has responded to North Korea in a manner that the New York Times characterized as "proportional to the provocation." It has shown some public displays of military force in the region and is assembling more robust missile defenses. Joint military exercises with South Korea have continued as scheduled, despite all of North Korea's accusations in justification of its own actions that the exercises are a prelude to a U.S.-South Korean attack against North Korea.
Obama administration officials have also made it clear that they will not be persuaded to negotiate economic assistance to North Korea, as has occurred in the past, to move North Korea away from its belligerent course. Nevertheless, according to a report in The Cable, "a top State Department official met with a top representative of the North Korean government in New York in March." However, no progress was made. Each side simply reiterated its set positions.
The Obama administration is walking a tightrope, not wanting to appear weak by turning the other cheek to North Korea's threats and bellicose actions but not going so far as to light the match that could start an out-of-control conflagration. So far so good, except for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's decision to postpone tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that had been scheduled for this week. Dictators see any sign of backing down as more weakness to exploit.
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