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All Headlines 10:28 June 04, 2009

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea Resisting International Pressure on Nuke, Missile Test

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- As the international community moves towards taking stern punitive action against North Korea's second nuclear test, the socialist state is already preparing further "self-defense countermeasures."

As widely expected, the U.N. Security Council is set to impose stronger sanctions on the North than it did in April, when it fired a long-range rocket, following its May 25 atomic detonation. But, ever defiant Pyongyang appears to be preparing to test-fire at least three medium-range missiles on its east coast, according to defense officials in Seoul.

The North warned May 29 it will take further steps should the U.N. punish its nuclear blast. A U.S-written draft resolution currently under review by the 15-member security council calls for financial sanctions on North Korea and bars the North from all weapons trade.

Military tensions are also running high on the Korean Peninsula amid an escalating tit-for-tat. In response to the North's nuclear test, South Korea joined a U.S.-led campaign, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), despite Pyongyang's warnings that Seoul's participation would be considered "an act of war." North Korea swiftly retaliated by nullifying the armistice that effectively ended the Korean War in 1953 and threatening military strikes against South Korean and U.S. naval ships operating near the volatile border in the Yellow Sea.

In an alarming sign soon after, Chinese fishing boats began leaving the Yellow Sea border region, where bloody military skirmishes between the Koreas erupted in 1999 and 2002. It was also reported that North Korea placed a navigation ban on vessels near the border. South Korea's military now stands on high alert.

North Korea has sharpened its coercive rhetoric against the U.N. Security Council since the world body condemned its April rocket launch, which Pyongyang claimed sent a satellite into orbit. (South Korea and the U.S. believe the launch was a disguised long-range missile test.) North Korea has also vowed to drop out of the six-nation denuclearization-for-aid talks and has expelled outside monitors from its nuclear facilities. It has also begun restoring its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which was in the process of being disabled under a pact signed by the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, Russia and China.

Following the nuclear test, North Korea's second following a weaker underground detonation in October 2006, Pyongyang fired off a series of short-range missiles into the East Sea.

On May 30, the defense ministers of South Korea, the United States and Japan pledged to press North Korea until it understands it will not be rewarded for such provocations. The talks between the defense heads of the three countries took place on the sidelines of a security forum in Singapore. The meeting, the first of its kind, also coincided with apparent preparations by North Korea to test-launch an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Similar to warnings that preceded the North's April rocket launch, officials in Washington and Seoul have said the missile is theoretically capable of hitting Alaska or Hawaii.

On June 1, intelligence officials said the ICBM appears to have been moved to a launch site in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province. The following day, South Korean sources said North Korea appears to be preparing to test-fire some of its most sophisticated ballistic missiles at sites on both coasts.

A South Korean government source said that at least three medium-range missiles were being prepared at the Kittaeryong missile base in the southeast, but did not know how far those missiles would be capable of flying. North Korea is believed to have about 800 missiles, including ones that can hit Guam, which is approximately 3,000 kilometers from the communist country and hosts a U.S. military base.

While Washington has pledged to act firmly in dealing with North Korea, it also hopes to see the isolated state return to the dialogue table. The U.S. State Department said on June 1 it was seeking a strong and binding U.N. Security Council resolution on North Korea's recent nuclear test while urging the North to return to the six-party denuclearization talks.

"What we want to see ... is a strong, unified and binding resolution that will deal with the North," deputy State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

It is not clear at the moment whether China, which holds veto power in the security council and is North Korea's staunchest communist ally, will approve the kind of financial sanctions that almost paralyzed North Korea's overseas financial transactions in 2005, when the U.S. froze tens of millions of dollars in North Korean assets in Macau's Banco Delta Asia.

China, which provides most of the energy North Korea needs and is Pyongyang's largest trading and investment partner, has refrained from sanctioning its nuclear-armed but impoverished neighbor. China and Russia thwarted efforts by the U.S. and its allies to adopt a legally binding U.N. Security Council resolution to rebuke North Korea for its rocket launch on April 5.

North Korea denounced China and Russia last week for supporting the council's adoption of a presidential statement calling for tougher sanctions on three North Korean firms for the launch.

In Washington, a senior official said on June 2 that North Korea may soon halt its provocations and resume negotiations with the United States, as leader Kim Jong-il appears to have completed the process to appoint his third son as his successor.

Reports recently emerged that Kim has issued orders to North Korean officials and diplomats abroad to pledge loyalty to Kim Jong-un, 26, in an attempt to consolidate a third-generation dynastic power transition, in what would be the first such transfer in the history of socialist nations. The order was issued soon after the North's nuclear test late last month.

Kim Jong-il had long made it a taboo to discuss his heir apparent, but he apparently shifted from this approach after having suffered a stroke and undergoing surgery last summer.

Opinions vary on the chances of a successful power transition, with some observers skeptical due to a lack of time for consolidation of power, while others forecast the emergence of a collective leadership surrounding Kim's youngest son.

The North's recent provocations aim to "kill the six-party talks and return to a bilateral U.S.-North Korea arms control process and secure recognition as its status as a nuclear weapons state," an official told a forum here recently. The six-party talks on ending the North's nuclear weapons programs have been deadlocked since December over Pyongyang's refusal to agree to a verification protocol on its nuclear activity.

Meanwhile, a U.S. delegation led by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg is visiting Seoul to discuss North Korean affairs. Steinberg said June 3 that his country and its allies are working together to deal with any contingencies in North Korea, including the post-Kim Jong-il era.

He said South Korea and the United States have a range of "options" to deal with Pyongyang. "I think we have a common view that we need to take steps to make clear to the North that the path it's on is the wrong one," Steinberg told reporters after an hour-long meeting with South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kwon Jong-rak.

Steinberg's delegation includes Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, in charge of cracking down on terrorism-related funds, Wallace Gregson, assistant secretary of defense for Asian Pacific affairs, Jeffrey Bader, senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, and Stephen Bosworth, special representative on North Korea policy.

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