HONOLULU - Americans might be tempted to brush off North Korea's diplomacy by diatribe and threats of war as so much bluster from a painfully weak nation.
That would be a mistake, because North Korean leaders are so ignorant of the outside world that they might believe their own propaganda and miscalculate.
The government of Kim Jong Il, known in Pyongyang as the "Dear Leader," says the Korean peninsula "is on the verge of war." Through its Korean Central News Agency, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea proclaims: "The army and people of the DPRK, with burning hatred for the Yankees, are in full readiness to fight a death-defying battle."
"The only way of preventing a catastrophic crisis," the North Koreans assert, is for the United States to agree to a nonaggression pact. Despite pledges by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell that the United States does not plan to attack North Korea, the North Koreans say they fear a U.S. pre-emptive strike.
President Bush's declared policy is that the United States could strike first if it had convincing evidence of an imminent attack. In South Korea, U.S. and South Korean war planners have identified thousands of North Korean targets that could be taken out if the North Koreans begin to coil their forces for war, according to U.S. military officers.
South Korea and the United States, which has 37,000 troops in South Korea, would have 48 to 72 hours of warning as the North Koreans mobilized their forces deployed close to the 151-mile demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula. Intelligence devices would detect radio traffic, troops and armored vehicles moving, artillery being rolled out of caves and dozens of other signs.
North Korea is likely to be encouraged in its demands of the United States by the presidential election Thursday of Roh Moo-hyun since Pyongyang had openly advocated that South Koreans vote for him. Mr. Roh, who will take office in February, has pledged to continue President Kim Dae Jung's pursuit of dialogue with the North and took an anti-American stance in his campaign.
The North Korean threat hardly seems credible. Its army, while large, is equipped with many obsolete weapons and is short of fuel and spare parts. The economy has been in a tailspin for a decade, and working people rarely have a decent meal. Between 1 million and 2 million people have died in a nation that must rely on food donations to survive.
Even so, it is led by the eccentric Kim Jong Il, who has wrapped himself in a cult of personality similar to that of his father, the late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. Russian influence, once strong in Pyongyang, has faded. Chinese leaders have told the United States they have little influence over Kim Jong Il but will keep his regime on enough life support to survive.
Analysts of North Korea worry that Kim Jong Il will seek to take advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with Iraq. His father made a similar move in 1968 when he dispatched commandos in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Park Chung Hee of South Korea and captured the U.S. surveillance ship Pueblo - just before the communist North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive.
U.S. military officers will not say so in public, but they worry that U.S. forces are stretched too thin to fight in Iraq and North Korea at the same time. Kim Jong Il can count, and this might cause him to misjudge U.S. intentions. In the 1991 Persian Gulf war against Iraq, the United States had 2 million men and women under arms; today, the forces are down to 1.4 million.
It's been 10 weeks since Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang to confront the North Koreans with evidence that they had resumed the nuclear weapons program that they had agreed to halt. Since then, the North Koreans have made at least seven demands of the United States before they will halt their nuclear program and missile sales, such as those to Yemen.
One would be the nonaggression pact, which should not be confused with the second, a peace treaty ending the Korean War of 1950-1953. Hostilities ended in a truce that is still in effect. That would lead to the third point, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, a demand that plays to growing anti-Americanism in South Korea.
The fourth would be diplomatic recognition that would see a North Korean embassy in Washington and a U.S. embassy in Pyongyang. Fifth would have the United States extend to North Korea "most favored nation" treatment in trade. The sixth would require the United States to compensate North Korea for lost missile sales.
And last, the North Koreans have demanded that President Bush remove them from his "axis of evil" that also includes Iraq and Iran.
Richard Halloran is a journalist and free-lance writer who specializes in U.S. military and Asian affairs. He lives in Honolulu.