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N. Korea set to raise tensions further with eye on US: experts

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

WASHINGTON -- North Korea's destruction of an inter-Korean liaison office is likely the first step in a series of provocations aimed at increasing its bargaining power with Washington and Seoul ahead of the November presidential election in the United States, experts here said Tuesday.

Fully aware that it is unlikely to get any sanctions relief it wants from the US before the election, North Korea will continue to escalate its military and nonmilitary threats in preparation for a second term for President Donald Trump or a first term for former Vice President Joe Biden, according to the analysts.

"This is just the opening bid," Sue Mi Terry, who served as Korea director on the National Security Councils of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told Yonhap News Agency in a phone interview.

"From here, escalations will continue. They have to. After provocations towards South Korea, then they will turn their attention to the United States," she said, noting the abundance of options North Korea can choose from without directly provoking Trump's ire.

Trump has drawn the line at nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests that threaten the United States, but North Korea could fire medium-range ballistic missiles over Japan or launch a missile from a submarine and still build its nuclear deterrence.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has also yet to showcase the "new strategic weapon" he spoke of in December, with upcoming anniversaries providing the opportunity to do so -- June 25 will be the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, July 4 will be Independence Day in the US and Oct. 10 will be 75 years since the founding of the North's ruling Workers' Party.

"Pyongyang has issued increasingly negative depictions of the personal relationship between Kim Jong-un and President Trump, and vowed not to engage in another photo-op summit," Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, told Yonhap, supporting the notion that North Korea is not interested in diplomacy anytime soon.

"For now, Pyongyang is more interested in incrementally ratcheting up tensions to force further South Korean obsequiousness and US relaxation of sanctions," he said.

The recent tensions in inter-Korean relations isn't to say that the North Koreans have steered clear of criticizing the US.

Last week, it warned the US to stay out of inter-Korean affairs if it wants to ensure a smooth presidential election without experiencing a "hair-raiser."

Those comments were a response to the US State Department's expression of disappointment at North Korea's decision to cut off all inter-Korean communication lines.

But the State Department continued to urge calm Tuesday after the North blew up the liaison office, saying the US "fully supports" South Korea's efforts on inter-Korean relations and "urges" the North to "refrain from further counterproductive actions."

"I think the US and the State Department are trying to dial down pressure, trying to not let it escalate," Terry said, adding that for the US government, it's important that North Korea doesn't do anything to embarrass Trump.

"It's hard for the United States to do anything about this anyway," she continued, "because right now, the one thing that they have done, blowing up the liaison office, it's still (North Korea's) territory. It's not like they did something to the United States."

Frank Aum, a senior expert on North Korea at the US Institute of Peace, seemed to support the State Department's response.

"The US-South Korea alliance should be careful about not overreacting to North Korea's dramatic outbursts," he told Yonhap.

The allies should focus on things they can control, such as increasing financial costs on the regime, maintaining military deterrence and readiness, and resolving negotiations over cost-sharing for the US troop presence in South Korea, he said. (Yonhap)
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