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North Korea counting on U.S. to blink

| Friday, March 29, 2013, 7:06 p.m.
University students punch the air as they march through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, March 29, 2013. Tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for the mass rally at the main square in Pyongyang in support of their leader Kim Jong Un's call to arms. Placards read: “Let’s crush the puppet traitor group” and “Let’s rip the puppet traitors to death!” (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s distinctive hairstyle previously was known as the “Chinese smuggler haircut,” according to an expatriated North Korean living in China.

SEOUL — Across North Korea, soldiers are gearing up for battle and shrouding their Jeeps and vans with camouflage netting. Newly painted signboards and posters call for “death to the U.S. imperialists” and urge the people to fight with “arms, not words.”

But even as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is issuing midnight battle cries to his generals to ready their rockets, he and his million-man army know full well that a successful missile strike on U.S. targets would be suicide for the outnumbered, out-powered North Korean regime.

Despite the hastening drumbeat of warfare — seemingly bringing the region to the very brink of conflict with threats and provocations — Pyongyang aims to force Washington to the negotiating table, pressure the new president in Seoul to change policy on North Korea, and build unity inside the communist country without triggering a full-blown war.

North Korea wants to draw attention to the tenuousness of the armistice designed to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula — a truce Pyongyang recently announced it no longer would honor as it warned that war could break out at any time.

In July, it will be 60 years since North Korea and China signed an armistice with America and the United Nations to bring an end to three years of fighting that cost millions of lives. The designated Demilitarized Zone has evolved into the most heavily guarded border in the world.

It was never intended to be a permanent border. But six decades later, North and South remain divided, with Pyongyang feeling abandoned by the South Koreans in the quest for reunification and threatened by the Americans.

In that time, South Korea has blossomed from a poor, agrarian nation of peasants into the world's 15th-largest economy, while North Korea is struggling to find a way out of a Cold War chasm that has left it with a per capita income on par with sub-Saharan Africa.

The Chinese troops who fought alongside the North Koreans have long since left. But 28,500 American troops are still stationed in South Korea, and 50,000 more are in nearby Japan. For weeks, the United States and South Korea have been showing off their military might with a series of joint exercises that Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for invasion.

On Thursday, the U.S. military confirmed that those drills included two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers that can unload the Air Force's largest conventional bomb — a 30,000-pound super bunker buster — powerful enough to destroy North Korea's web of underground military tunnels.

It was a flexing of military muscle by Washington, perhaps aimed not only at Pyongyang but at Beijing as well.

In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un reacted swiftly, calling an emergency meeting of army generals and ordering them to be prepared to strike if the U.S. actions continue.

However, what North Korea really wants is legitimacy in the eyes of America — and a peace treaty. Pyongyang wants U.S. troops off Korean soil, and the bombs and rockets it has put on public display are more of an expensive, dangerous safety blanket than real firepower. They are the only real playing card North Korea has left, and the bait they hope will bring the Americans to the negotiating table.

Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, isn't convinced North Korea is capable of attacking Guam, Hawaii or the U.S. mainland. He says Pyongyang hasn't successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile.

But its medium-range Rodong missiles, with a range of about 800 miles, are “operational and credible” and could reach U.S. bases in Japan, he says.

More likely than such a strike, however, is a smaller-scale incident, perhaps off the Koreas' western coast, that would not provoke the Americans to unleash their considerable firepower.

As threatening as Kim's call to arms may sound, its main target audience may be the masses at home in North Korea.

For months, the masterminds of North Korean propaganda have pinpointed this year's milestone Korean War anniversary as a prime time to play up Kim's military credibility as well as to push for a peace treaty. By creating the impression that a U.S. attack is imminent, the regime can foster a sense of national unity and encourage the people to rally around their leader.

More than 100,000 soldiers, students and ordinary workers were summoned on Friday to Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang to pump their fists in support of North Korea's commander-in-chief. But elsewhere, it was business as usual at restaurants and shops, and farms and factories, where the workers have heard it all before.

“Tensions rise almost every year around the time the U.S.-South Korean drills take place, but as soon as those drills end, things go back to normal and people put those tensions behind them quite quickly,” said Sung Hyun-sang, the South Korean president of a clothing maker operating in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. “I think and hope that this time won't be different.”

And in a telling sign that even the North Koreans don't expect war, the national airline, Air Koryo, is adding flights to its spring lineup and preparing to host the scores of tourists they expect to flock to Pyongyang despite the threats issuing forth from the Supreme Command.

War or no war, it seems Pyongyang remains open for business.

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