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Analysis: North Korea blinked in missile standoff, but will threaten again

News analysis

SEOUL, South Korea – After weeks of a standoff that, at times, worried even the most stoic South Koreans, the North blinked. The latest North Korea crisis is over, but the question is: for how long? 

The view doesn’t look encouraging. North Korea’s medium-range missiles remain locked on their launchers; U.S. and South Korean destroyers still ply Korea’s coastline. 

Across the region, Patriot anti-missile batteries are on the ready. One top U.S. nuclear expert says North Korea will need to test-fire more missiles and nuclear arms in the future. 

But at least for now, instead of drumbeats of war, Pyongyang is sending out feelers about talks and piling on its demands: The complete lifting of United Nations' sanctions, a permanent end to U.S.-South Korean war games, and lots of apologies. The latest came on Tuesday with the North insisting it must be recognized as a nuclear weapons state, rejecting a U.S. condition that it agree to give up its nuclear arms program before talks can begin.

The South called the North's conditions “shameless.”

Secretary of State John Kerry has taken a broader view, saying it’s “at least a beginning gambit.”

But he’s already dismissing talks until North Korea shows serious signs of dismantling its nuclear arms program. In response, Kim Jong Un’s regime has said that’s a non-starter – that its nuclear weapons are its “treasured sword” and aren’t negotiable at any price.

Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to direct disarmament talks with North Korea, but there is still no sign Kim Jong Un is prepared to stop testing nuclear weapons. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

We’ve been here before. The Obama administration calls it “a cycle of provocation.” North Korea deploys threatening words and actions – capped off with a real missile or nuclear test – in order to gain concessions from the U.S. and South Korea, usually in the form of cash. The North then retreats -- until the next crisis.

Some Korea experts say Washington has failed to break that cycle, despite its efforts at “strategic patience” – a highfalutin expression for avoiding engagement with the North while letting sanctions bite.

And they blame that U.S. policy as much as North Korea for the impasse.

“The problem is that, when there’s a sense of crisis, the U.S. doesn’t want to talk to Pyongyang because it would be rewarding bad behavior,” said John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “But then when the crisis abates, the U.S. doesn’t want to talk with Pyongyang [either] because it’s not a priority."

Analysts like Delury say it’s only a matter of time before tensions, once again, will rise to dangerous levels. That’s because the U.S. keeps learning the wrong lessons, so it’s stuck in a low-grade, perpetual crisis with North Korea.

They say the U.S. has failed to see that North Korea is really after security first and foremost, followed by recognition and international legitimacy, not aid. If they were just after money, Pyongyang would not have shut down its Keasong Industrial Park, a joint North-South venture which generates billions of dollars annually in trade, during the latest crisis.

North Korea’s provocations are often seen in the West as a kind of pro-active blackmail, but Delury said that’s another U.S. misperception.

“North Korea is reactive,” he explained. “Half of its provocations are counter or defensive moves to assert its strength in the face of far more powerful U.S., South Korean and Japanese forces arrayed against them.”

It’s true that, during the most recent crisis, the tide turned away from confrontation only when the U.S. dialed down its displays of nuclear-capable weaponry, like B2 stealth bombers and F-22 super fighters, used as a show of force during war maneuvers close to North Korea’s border.

Much, of course, depends on the extent to which China – North Korea’s main benefactor with a hand on the tiny country’s food and fuel taps – can persuade Kim that he can rule without the need for nuclear weapons as his ultimate guarantee. 

The youngest son of Kim Jong Il succeeded his late father in 2011, becoming the third member of his family to rule the unpredictable and reclusive communist state.

But the U.S. -- Korea watchers here say -- needs to grasp that North Korea’s goal is to survive in a tough neighborhood, surrounded by nuclear powers – China, Russia and U.S. forces. 

If the U.S. wants to break its perpetual cycle of crisis with North Korea, it may well have to bite the bullet – these analysts say – and sit down and negotiate with a “nuclear North Korea,” without officially recognizing the state, or its atomic capability. 

Rather than cash handouts, that could open the door to serious discussions about North Korea’s economic development – something that Kim himself recently called a top priority. Getting there, though, is fraught with difficulty – it would require massive amounts of political will and constant communication through a high-level U.S. special envoy to North Korea, someone like George Mitchell or Madeleine Albright.

It would also mean a leap of faith by the young Kim – if indeed he is in control of his country, as U.S. officials now believe - and the unlearning of wrong lessons by the U.S.

But the alternative, says Delury, is much worse – more bristling standoffs in the future, with even more risk that an accident or miscalculation could trigger a disaster. “Both sides have gone from trading statements about who is really ready for war, to trading statements about who is really ready for dialogue. But that doesn’t mean anything has really changed at a fundamental level.”

And, unless it does, sooner or later North Korea will be back on the airwaves, threatening the world with its “sledge-hammer blows.”

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Seoul, South Korea.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Related:

US, North Korea appear far apart on conditions for negotiation

Kerry: China must do more to resolve N. Korea crisis 

Full North Korea coverage from NBC News