North Korea broke off an agreement to halt testing of nuclear devices and long-range missiles after the U.S. canceled food assistance to the totalitarian regime in response to its botched rocket launch last week.
North Korea is now “free” to take “necessary retaliatory measures” after the U.S. withdrew its offer of 240,000 tons of food, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement today carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. U.S. lawmakers responded to the statements and the launch, denouncing what they called the “wicked” regime as well as “insane” diplomatic engagement efforts by successive U.S. presidents.
There now will be a “period where the U.S. and North Korea exchange criticisms and shift blame on the other,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “Depending on China’s role in that process, this could turn to dialogue or additional provocation by North Korea.”
The North said it’s prepared to wage a “holy war” against South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s government and would take “special action” against targets that could include central Seoul, an unidentified spokesman of the supreme command of the Korean People’s Army said in a separate statement carried by KCNA. The regime often issues statements threatening war.
In Washington, a congressional hearing elicited denunciations from lawmakers, who said the regime abused food aid it was given in the past. Communist North Korea has chronic food shortages, with millions of children suffering stunted growth while limited supplies go to the nation’s military and political elite.
Regional specialists testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee said further North Korean provocation is likely, either another missile test or the first underground nuclear test since May 2009. A South Korean intelligence report warned a week ago that recent activity at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site is consistent with preparations for previous atomic device detonations.
“Historical patterns would suggest they will do a nuclear test,” said Michael Green, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former National Security Council official. He said the North Koreans may test a uranium-fueled device for the first time, after past plutonium- fueled blasts in 2006 and 2009.
Frederick Fleitz, managing editor of the Langley Intelligence Group Network and a former CIA analyst, said he thought chances of a nuclear test soon are “50-50.”
“I think there will be a nuclear test when North Korea is technically ready and prepared to endure the enormous amount of isolation,” Fleitz said.
Lawmakers criticized both the regime and the policies of U.S. administrations, particularly in sending food aid. The Obama administration, attempting to avoid a repeat of past difficulties with aid diverted by the regime, had insisted on measures to ensure that food reached ordinary Koreans.
The U.S. pressed unsuccessfully for North Korea to cancel the launch of a rocket -- which disintegrated minutes after liftoff April 13 -- saying it would nullify the Feb. 29 accord to provide food following the suspension of nuclear and missile tests.
“It just seems like our government, not just Democrats, but Republicans as well, we reached out trying to negotiate with these guys,” said Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican. “I don’t see where we’ve gained a thing.”
North Korea’s foreign ministry said the U.S. was abusing the United Nations Security Council by “imposing its brigandish demand,” a reference to the 15-member body’s censure issued this week. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice is the council president this month.
The Security Council’s April 16 statement called the launch a “serious violation” of existing resolutions that ban North Korea from using its ballistic missile technology. The council also said it would update its list of sanctioned goods.
The UN body moved more quickly than in the past to censure North Korea, and China’s approval signals that the North’s only ally “might be taking a firmer stance against the North,” Yang said. China is a permanent veto-wielding member of Security Council.
Kim Jong Un, who took power in December following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, used his first public speech on April 15 to say the world can’t threaten or blackmail North Korea’s “undefeated” 1.2 million-strong military.
Two UN resolutions are already in place after North Korea detonated atomic devices in 2006 and 2009. The measures call for stepped-up inspection of suspect air and sea cargo and seek to block funding for nuclear, missile and proliferation work.
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