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Asia

North Korea reverts to tactic of belligerence

After several months of conciliatory rhetoric emerging from Pyongyang, the North Korean leadership has gone back to provocative military actions and calling its enemies names.

As recently as late February, there were strong indications that the regime of Kim Jong Un was making an effort to build a better working relationship with his neighbors and ideological rivals. In that month, hundreds of Koreans from north and south of the border were reunited for the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953 at the Mount Kumgang resort. There were suggestions that further reunions might take place in the future.

There was also progress on the issue of ensuring that the Kaesong industrial zone continued to function to its maximum capacity, while the North even suggested through its state media that both sides should stop "slandering" the opposite side's leadership. A matter of a few weeks down the line, anyone holding out hope that North Korea had turned over a new leaf has been disabused of the notion.

"I don't actually think that Kim's basic stance has changed at all and the nice side of North Korea that we have seen recently was little more than an act," Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University, told DW.

'Running out of options'

"It also appears to me that Kim is running out of options now," he added. "Kim is attempting to demonstrate his strength by showing off his military capabilities and the rhetoric almost indicates he is willing to start a war, but this just shows how childish and immature he is as a leader.

"But with North Korea, we often get these spells of conciliatory words followed by threats of aggression, so this seems to be a return to usual behavior," professor Ito said. "One of the main problems with this tactic is that the rest of the world really does not know if it can believe or trust anything that North Korea says."

And that, he adds, makes dealing with Pyongyang impossible for the rest of the world. But it does not seem to register in the regime's leadership.

On Monday April 8, the state-run Korea Central News Agency condemned South Korea's test launch of a new missile system, described the government in Seoul as "puppet warmongers" and threatened to respond by "pounding all the strongholds of the enemy with [a] merciless shower of missile to reduce them to ashes."

A few days previously, Kim Jong Un was quoted in the Rodong Sinmun as ordering military commanders attending a rally to "thoroughly crush the hostile US policy against [North Korea] by force."

Words and actions

The strong words have been backed up by similarly aggressive actions. Since mid-March, dozens of short-range Scud-class missiles have been launched at targets off the coast of North Korea, with two medium-range Rodong missiles fired on March 25 - launches that South Korea and the US condemned as being in contravention of United Nations resolutions.

Passengers watch a television program showing reports on North Korea's plan to conduct live-fire drills, at a railway station in Seoul March 31, 2014.

Pyongyang recently threatened to "pound all the strongholds of the enemy with [a] merciless shower of missiles"

Before the month was out, the two Koreas had traded hundreds of artillery rounds across the disputed sea border off the west coast of the peninsula after North Korean shells fell into waters south of the frontier.

Most recently, the South Korean military has been perturbed to discover three remote-controlled drones that have crashed to the south of the Demilitarized Zone. Analysis of the photographs captured by the aircraft showed South Korean defensive positions close to the border as well as the area around the South Korean president's official residence in Seoul.

Analysts say that North Korea turning its back on engagement has been caused by a series of factors, including a UN report that was highly critical of the human rights situation in the North and Seoul calling on the North to repay 7 million USD in principal and interest on loans of 724 million USD that were extended between 2000 and 2007.

'Seasonal' reactions

The North has also been angered by comments made by South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Dresden in late March about the future reunification of the peninsula into a single country. State media labeled the proposals "rubbish" and "an unpardonable insult," while Park herself was described as a "freakish old maid."

Yet another bone of contention were the annual Foal Eagle military exercises, which take place in the late winter months every year and are designed to improve tactics and increase interoperability between the US and South Korean military stationed on the peninsula.

A picture released by the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of North Korea's ruling Workers Party, on 26 February 2014, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un giving an address during the eighth conference of the ideological officials of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, 25 February 2014.

Analysts say they don't believe Kim Jong Un's stance towards South Korea has changed

"North Korea's provocations are almost seasonal because of the annual US-South Korean military drills," said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. "Almost every year they feel they have to launch some missiles and last year they went as far as to conduct a nuclear test.

"So largely this is not a surprise," he said. "Although it is interesting that we are seeing a change in relations between North Korea and Japan."

Japan-North Korea talks

The two nations have been holding talks on the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, which analysts believe may be an effort by Pyongyang to divide the Japan-US-South Korea alliance that is arrayed against it.

"Seoul and Washington are a little bit concerned about this situation as it is obvious that North Korea is trying to divide the alliance," Kotani said. "And that is one reason why it is important that President [Barack] Obama visits both Japan and South Korea later this month.

"North Korea is now waiting to see how the rest of the world responds to its recent provocations," believes Kotani. "If governments show an accommodating approach, then Pyongyang will demand concessions. If the response is firm, then we will see more provocations. "And that could include another nuclear test," he admitted.