Tension Mounts Over North Korean Missiles

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Uh-oh. As North Korea threatens that U.S. pressure to back off from testing a long-range missile may force it to push the button, military maneuvers by two U.S. allies in the East China Sea aren’t likely to ease tensions. Japan and South Korea continued an unprecedented joint naval exercise Wednesday, in response to North Korea’s increasingly belligerent missile-testing program. But acting crazy is an important part of the reclusive communist state’s effort to secure aid from Washington and its allies. "Making themselves a security problem is North Korea’s primary leverage in dealing with the world," says TIME Tokyo correspondent Tim Larimer. "It’s crippled by famine and the decline of its industrial base, so its military might and reputation for irrationality are its strongest cards in any negotiations." As if to underline the point, Pyongyang warned Tuesday that "the further the United States escalates pressure on us, the stronger our reaction will become to bring unpredictable consequences."

Since 1994, offers of energy and food assistance by the U.S. and its allies had succeeded in curbing North Korea’s nuclear program and its missile exports, but strong warnings against the latest planned test -- and military maneuvers by its regional enemies -- may goad Pyongyang into pressing the button. "By making so much of it we may have turned this missile firing into a test of North Korean manhood," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "Being more discreet may give Pyongyang more of a way out." Which may be why, despite the threats of harsh economic retaliation, Washington is arguing strongly that a $5 billion U.S.-Japanese-South Korean program of nuclear energy aid to North Korea will go ahead regardless.