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Analysis: N. Korea threat may be more bark than bite

University students punch the air as they march through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, March 29, 2013. Tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for the mass rally at the main square in Pyongyang in support of their leader Kim Jong Un's call to arms. Placards read: “Let’s crush the puppet traitor group” and “Let’s rip the puppet traitors to death!” (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

University students punch the air as they march through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, March 29, 2013. Tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for the mass rally at the main square in Pyongyang in support of their leader Kim Jong Un's call to arms. Placards read: “Let’s crush the puppet traitor group” and “Let’s rip the puppet traitors to death!” (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

Across North Korea, soldiers are gearing up for battle and shrouding their jeeps and vans with camouflage netting. Newly painted signboards and posters call for “death to the U.S. imperialists” and urge the people to fight with “arms, not words.”

But even as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is issuing midnight battle cries to his generals to ready their rockets, he and his million-man army know full well that a successful missile strike on U.S. targets would be suicide for the outnumbered, out-powered North Korean regime.

Despite the hastening drumbeat of warfare – seemingly bringing the region to the very brink of conflict with threats and provocations – Pyongyang aims to force Washington to the negotiating table, pressure the new president in Seoul to change policy on North Korea and build unity inside the communist country without triggering a full-blown war.

North Korea wants to draw attention to the tenuousness of the armistice designed to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula, a truce Pyongyang recently announced it would no longer honor as it warned that war could break out at any time.

In July, it will be 60 years since North Korea and China signed an armistice with the United States and the United Nations to bring an end to three years of fighting that cost millions of lives. The designated Demilitarized Zone has evolved into the most heavily guarded border in the world.

It was never intended to be a permanent border. But six decades later, North and South remain divided, with Pyongyang feeling abandoned by the South Koreans in the quest for reunification and threatened by the Americans.

In that time, South Korea has blossomed from a poor, agrarian nation of peasants into the world’s 15th-largest economy while North Korea is struggling to find a way out of a Cold War chasm that has left it with a per capita income on par with sub-Saharan Africa.

The Chinese troops who fought alongside the North Koreans have long since left. But 28,500 American troops are still stationed in South Korea and 50,000 more are in nearby Japan. For weeks, the U.S. and South Korea have been showing off their military might with a series of joint exercises that Pyongyang sees a rehearsal for invasion.

On Thursday, the U.S. military confirmed that those drills included two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers that can unload the U.S. Air Force’s largest conventional bomb – a 30,000-pound super bunker-buster – powerful enough to destroy North Korea’s web of underground military tunnels.

In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un reacted swiftly, calling an emergency meeting of army generals and ordering them to be prepared to strike if the U.S. actions continue. A photo distributed by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency showed Kim in a military operations room with maps detailing a “strike plan” behind him in a very public show of supposedly sensitive military strategy.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said North Korea’s “bellicose rhetoric” would only deepen its international isolation, and that the U.S. has both the capability and willingness to defend its interests in the region.

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