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Asia

Back to business as usual for North Korea

With Washington's foreign policy being questioned, South Korea looking to appease Pyongyang with aid, and China returning as the regime's biggest supporter, it appears to be business as usual in North Korea.

The mood in Pyongyang has been festive this week, with tens of thousands of military personnel marching across the vast Kim Il-Sung Square on Monday, cheered on by similar numbers of loyal party members dressed in the traditional Korean attire kept for just such special occasions.

State Foundation Day is another red-letter day on the North Korean calendar and this year marked the 65th anniversary of the creation of the nation by Kim Il-sung. His grandson, Kim Jong-un, applauded as his military paraded before him and looked pleased at what he saw.

And the youthful leader has good reason to be pleased, say analysts, despite the economic problems that his nation continues to face and the announcement by South Korea and the United States that the two allies are close to completing a three-pronged plan designed to deter North Korea from using its nuclear and missile capabilities to threaten the rest of the world.

North Korean soldiers and performers participate in a mass military parade to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the country's founding, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Pyongyang, North Korea (Photo: AP Photo/KRT via AP Video)

A show of force

Obama 'fluctuating'

"President [Barack] Obama is fluctuating one way and then another on Syria and the diplomatic and military credibility of the US has been damaged, which means that Washington's threats of force against North Korea become weaker day by day," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Japan's Fukui Prefectural University. "At the same time, South Korea is intent on restarting the Kaesong industrial park as a token of its goodwill towards the regime," he said. "This will earn a great deal of money for the North and you can be sure that money will then be used by the regime to build yet more nuclear weapons and missiles."

The expert went on to say that "this action by the South Korean government is tantamount to a violation of United Nations sanctions on the North."

The other key player in the region is China, which supported UN sanctions against Pyongyang after it test-fired a missile in December and carried out its third underground nuclear test in February of this year.

There was widespread optimism that Beijing had finally cracked down on its errant neighbor and was imposing controls that would limit North Korea's ability to acquire nuclear technology and export missile know-how.

Encouragement from China

But analysts now say it is business as usual once again between Beijing and Pyongyang and the North's exports are simply crossing the border into China and beyond while atomic technology - as well as the all-important luxury goods that the elite of the regime require to sustain their lifestyles - flow in the opposite direction.

"A couple of months ago China was being tough on the regime, but that's over now," said Professor Hiroyasu Akutsu, a North Korea expert at Japan's National Institute of Defense Studies, told DW. "It's not clear yet exactly how much China is now aiding the North, but there are clearly loopholes in the sanctions-based approach to dealing with the regime," he said.

Prof. Akutsu believes China's quiet about-face on enforcing international sanctions mirrors its actions in 2009, when it again supported the UN Security Council when it implemented Resolution 1874 in an attempt to isolate North Korea and encourage the regime to give up its weapons to develop and deploy a nuclear weapon.

"The international community expected China to get tough and stay touch on Pyongyang, but within months the aid had restarted," he said. "It's the same this time around."

Aggression on hold

North Korea has not yet returned to the aggression that it demonstrated earlier in the year - most famously when it threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" and to launch ballistic missiles at targets in the continental US.

"They appear to be quiet at this point and are engaging in dialogue with the South, but that is in order to win back the support of China and they are really just pretending to be quiet," Prof. Akutsu said. "The North is biding its time and looking for an excuse to restart its nuclear and missile tests. They need to carry out those tests to become the 'strong, prosperous and great power' that they always say they are going to be."

If the North is looking for an excuse to return to the hectoring bombast of the past, the US-South Korean Security Consultative Meeting scheduled to take place in Seoul on October 2 could be it.

A security officer directs South Korean vehicles as they leave for South and North Korea's joint Kaesong Industrial Complex to bring back their finished goods and materials at the customs, immigration and quarantine office of the Inter-Korean Transit Office near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Monday, July 15, 2013 (Photo: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Ties between the two Koreas have swung between friendship and confrontation

At the meeting, the two governments will unveil a plan designed to deter the North from using its nuclear capabilities as a threat to the region and the wider world.

The two nations have been carrying out joint research on a "tailored deterrence strategy" that envisions the use of escalating political, diplomatic and military responses to any threat.

In addition to the "nuclear umbrella" that the US also guarantees to the South, the strategy includes a missile defense system and even the option of precision military strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities should Pyongyang indicate that it is planning to launch a missile with a nuclear warhead.

That possibility has taken a large step forward, according to a US intelligence assessment of Pyongyang's advances in miniaturizing its nuclear warheads to the point they can be attached to a missile. Instead of being some years off, Washington now believes that North Korea's scientists may be as little as 12 months away from perfecting the technology.

Return to confrontation

The comments emerging from the North also suggest that it is slowly moving away from engagement and back to confrontation.

"Everything depends on the behavior of the US and South Korea," Kim Myong-chol, executive director of The Center for North Korea-US Peace and unofficial spokesman for the regime in North Korea, told DW. "We in the North want peace, but this pressure on us from the US and South Korea is unnecessary and it cannot work," he said.

"North Korea has the capability to strike targets in the US within an hour. We could vaporize the US and that would be the end of both America and South Korea. It is my opinion that the US will surrender in the next two years and sign a peace treaty with North Korea," he added. "After that, the Korean peninsula will be reunited within another two years."

He did not even bother to add the assumption that it would be reunited under a North Korean regime.