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North Korea fires off a memo

Kim OK’s missile launch to bolster shaky standing at home, get attention of U.S.

Japan sets up surface-to-air missiles at a military base near Tokyo following North Korea's missile launch Sunday.

Japan sets up surface-to-air missiles at a military base near Tokyo following North Korea's missile launch Sunday.

SEOUL, South Korea – With North Korea’s rocket launch, Kim Jong Il has the world exactly where he wants it: with all eyes on Pyongyang and its defiance of international demands to call off the provocative liftoff.

The leaders of the U.S., Japan and other nations warned that a launch would come at a high price, including possible punishment by the U.N. Security Council. They accuse the regime of flouting a 2006 Security Council resolution that bans the North from any ballistic missile activity, including launching rockets.

For the North Korean dictator, the risk of censure may well be worth it. It’s exactly the attention Kim is looking for as he looks to consolidate his power base at home and seeks to wrangle aid and other concessions from the U.S. president.

The 67-year-old communist leader is scheduled Thursday to preside over his first parliamentary session since disappearing from the public eye for several weeks beginning last August.

Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke so serious it prevented him from appearing at a military parade celebrating North Korea’s milestone 60th anniversary, a marked absence that prompted fears of a succession crisis in the totalitarian nation of 24 million people.

With the North built on a cult of personality encompassing Kim and his father, national founder Kim Il Sung, the regime denied rumors that diabetes or a stroke had struck Kim, a man credited in state media with such physical talent that holes-in-one are routine when he golfs.

But the top brass in Pyongyang who no doubt took over for Kim when he was bedridden are clearly spooked and want to show North Koreans, and the world, that Kim is back in charge.

None of Kim’s three sons is considered polished enough to take the family dynasty into a third generation, so the “Dear Leader” – who has never inspired the reverence his father commanded – knows he has to foster unity.

But Kim’s main audience is President Obama. After eight years of a hard-line Bush administration, North Korea may harbor hopes of a return to the relatively warmer ties of the Clinton presidency.

Despite its policy of “juche,” or “self-reliance,” communist North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, has few allies and is in desperate need of outside help. The money that flowed in unconditionally from neighboring South Korea for a decade dried up when conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008.

North Korea has few assets with which to barter, and for years has used its nuclear weapons program as its trump card, promising to abandon its atomic ambitions in exchange for aid and then dangling the nuclear threat when it doesn’t get its way. It’s been an effective strategy so far, with previous missile launches drawing Washington to the negotiating table.

The Obama administration, beset by more pressing concerns at home and elsewhere, has yet to fully formulate its North Korea policy. But Kim has seized some of Obama’s attention.

Just hours after the liftoff in North Korea, the American leader – woken from slumber by news of the launch – warned the North the move would further isolate it.

“North Korea broke the rules, once again, by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles,” Obama said in Prague. “This provocation underscores the need for action, not just this afternoon in the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons.”

Obama, Lee and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso also warned they would take North Korea to the U.N. Security Council and press for sanctions. But with North Korean ally China holding a veto as one of the council’s five permanent members, reaching a consensus on sanctions appears unlikely.

And with North Korea threatening to continue developing its long-range missile capabilities, Washington may have no choice but to dispatch a high-level envoy to Pyongyang. In the end, that could lead to Kim getting what he wants most: direct talks with the Obama administration.

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