Analysis: Far from empty threats show there is bite behind the bark

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NORTH Korea’s war threats are often dismissed as the kind of over-the-top rhetoric the world expects from the reclusive and eccentric leadership in Pyongyang.

But while the latest threat to launch a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” on the United States is believed to be beyond North Korea’s technical capacities, history shows there can be bite behind Pyongyang’s bark.

Bruce Klingner, a retired North Korea analyst for the CIA, warns “we cannot easily dismiss North Korean threats, because they have often been carried out.” An example, he says, is 2010, when after threats against South Korea and vilification of its then-president, Lee Myung-bak, North Korea lashed out in a pair of deadly attacks on a South Korean warship and an island, killing 50 people.

“The conundrum has always been: Is a new North Korean threat one that will not be carried out, as frequently has been the case in the past, or is it a portent of upcoming action?” asked Klingner.

This week’s nuclear attack rhetoric appeared intended to intimidate South Korea, the US and China.

“A lot of it is just their classical reaction to the fact that the international community increasingly is coming together and making it tougher for them to operate – that’s the kind of acting out that we often see from North Korea,” Glyn Davies, US special representative for North Korea, told a Senate hearing last week.If the North’s aim was to goad Washington back into nuclear talks, it misfired, said Matt Stumpf, Washington director of the Asia Society.

“If North Korea is using new threats to get the US back to the negotiating table, it is missing how much opinion in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing has changed through successive crises,” Stumpf said.

“This might have been a workable strategy in the past, but there will be little appetite to negotiate until North Korea shows it is committed to real change.”