Sunday, August 05, 2007

North Korean Leader's Frequent Visits To Army Bases Prompt Speculation

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has visited military bases for four straight days, an unusual frequency that has prompted speculation he may be about to make a decision regarding the country's disputed nuclear program. The visits come ahead of a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise. On Friday, North Korea denounced the upcoming Aug. 20-21 drill as an ``unacceptable provocation.'' The North's official Korean Central News Agency reported Saturday that Kim inspected an army unit and expressed satisfaction with its combat readiness. It was the fourth straight day that KCNA reported Kim visiting an army base. Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest newspaper, said the visits may indicate Kim was about to make an important decision, possibly regarding his country's nuclear programs.North Korea shut down its sole functioning nuclear reactor last month in exchange for energy aid under a deal with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. Kim periodically visits military bases to ensure the loyalty of his troops, the backbone of his iron-fisted rule. But it is unusual for him to make so many visits in such a short time. ``I think the main purpose is to boost the morale of soldiers during vacation season and ahead of'' the joint military exercise, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University. North Korea has condemned the annual drill in South Korea as a rehearsal for a northward invasion. The U.S. and South Korea say the exercise, staged since 1975, is defensive. About 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War which ended in a cease-fire, leaving the two Koreas still technically at war.