David McNeill: Seoul divided over merits of annoying the neighbours

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A united and necessary show of strength, or a recklessly provocative act against a belligerent and proud nation teetering on the edge of disintegration? This weekend's joint US-South Korea military drill, codenamed "Invincible Spirit", has divided opinion in Seoul, the South's capital of 10 million people, who will bear the brunt of any response from the North.

Supporters of conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who has effectively ended a decade of rapprochement with Pyongyang, say it is time to send a clear message that the world has had enough of the incessant sabre-rattling north of the border.

Critics respond that with the reclusive Stalinist backwater in turmoil amid a collapsing economy and a looming transition of power, it could be the wrong time to send such a huge show of force so close to its borders.

North Korea reportedly has the world's fourth-largest standing army, and a rudimentary nuclear arsenal, though little means to deliver its payload.

The North's government responded to news of the drill, involving 8,000 US and South Korean troops, 200 fighter jets, naval aircraft and helicopters, and 20 warships, with a typically florid burst of venom, calling it an "unpardonable military provocation" and warning of a possibly nuclear response.

Washington and Seoul have calculated that this is another idle threat. US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley responded over the weekend by saying: "We are not interested in a war of words with North Korea. What we need from North Korea is fewer provocative words and more constructive action."

Pyongyang certainly has a long history of brinkmanship. In 1993 leader Kim Jong-il took the country very close to confrontation with the White House under then US president Bill Clinton by producing plutonium for a nuc-lear weapon, before agreeing to a freeze in return for the construction of light-water nuclear reactors. This so-called Agreed Framework collapsed during the presidency of George W Bush, with allegations of bad faith on both sides. Bush and his team, branding North Korea as part of an "Axis of Evil", accused it of secretly restarting the weapons programme.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, claimed the US had reneged on its pledge to supply fuel and other aid. The exchange chilled relations, even before the election of President Lee and the sinking of a South Korean frigate this year. Pyongyang denies any part in the sinking.

Neither side can afford a war, and the weekend's war games will almost certainly pass off without incident, let alone a nuclear conflagration.

They may even have the desired impact of bullying Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. But with tensions so high and the military on both sides throwing shapes across one of the world's most dangerous hot spots, there is always the possibility that the games could turn serious.

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