IT CANNOT be said that it failed to warn them, for this week its propaganda organs reached a note of shrillness unusual even by North Korean standards. Charging that traitorous South Korea and the United States were bent on a “second Korean war”, North Korea declared that it would take “every necessary measure” to defend itself. It was a “touch-and-go situation in which nuclear war may break out at any moment”. Kim Jong Il has put his 1m-strong armed forces on a state of high alert, cut the military hot line to the South and, for a day at least, stopped South Korean managers from crossing the border to the Kaesong industrial enclave where North Korea experiments with capitalism.
Yet South Korea and America are far from preparing for war. They are merely conducting annual joint military exercises. These are a little larger than usual, admittedly. But as if to emphasise their defensive nature, the public face of the American armed forces has been a naval officer of unthreatening portliness.
They are, however, watching North Korea closely. It appears to be preparing a long-range Taepodong-2 missile for launch in early April. This would be the first launch since an unsuccessful test in 2006. The regime claims to be sending a satellite into orbit and has notified the International Maritime Organisation of its plan. But the same missile, if carrying a warhead, is capable in theory of reaching Hawaii or Alaska. A launch would breach United Nations sanctions on North Korea. President Barack Obama’s new special envoy for Korea, Stephen Bosworth, has said merely that it would be “ill-advised”.
Not for the first time, Mr Kim appears to be trying to get a new administration’s attention and put his stamp on proceedings early in Mr Obama’s term in office. American policy towards North Korea is not yet set. Mr Bosworth himself is critical of the early hostility of Mr Obama’s predecessor, George Bush, arguing that it quickened the development of Mr Kim’s nuclear programme. Engagement, he believes, offers the only hope of getting the country not only to dismantle its nuclear capability but also to develop the economy. Yet in Washington experts are suggesting everything from accepting North Korea as a nuclear state to bombing its facilities.
Mr Kim’s regime is also livid that South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak has made aid conditional on progress over nuclear issues. A possibly greater flashpoint than the missile launch is a disputed maritime boundary to the west of the Korean peninsula. North Korea has provoked deadly naval skirmishes there before.
The shrillness may disguise disagreement in Pyongyang about how to deal with Mr Lee and Mr Obama. On March 9th the state media announced the results of parliamentary elections. In Constituency 333, every eligible adult cast a vote for the same candidate, one Kim Jong Il. Elsewhere, say Pyongyang-watchers in Seoul, notable hardliners were promoted.