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N. Korea having tantrums, so progress in talks may be near

BEIJING — North Korea's huffing and puffing has grown louder in recent weeks, and in the strange world of Pyongyang diplomacy that might be a good sign.

The bigger the fit, the more it's possible that a concession is near, experts said.

In recent days, North Korea has fired short-range missiles into the sea, threatened to reduce South Korea to "ashes" and railed that Washington is lying about Pyongyang's alleged transfers of nuclear technology to Syria.

On Tuesday, U.S. nuclear envoy Christopher Hill will meet his North Korea counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, in Singapore for the latest talks on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons program. North Korea has delayed delivering a declaration of all its nuclear activities, defying a December deadline and dimming prospects for the talks.

Experts said it was a common tactic for North Korea to increase the bluster, even escalating tensions into full-blown crises, just before making concessions in talks.

"One past pattern in North Korean negotiating behavior has involved an increase in public rhetoric or criticism of other parties as a way of masking a concession to internal audiences," said Scott Snyder, a senior associate at the Asia Foundation, which works to promote law and good governance in the region.

The current squabble between Washington and Pyongyang is over North Korea's declaration of its nuclear activities. Washington demands a thorough declaration that accounts for programs involving highly enriched uranium. Pyongyang says it submitted a complete list to Washington last November.

Hill and Kim came close to a deal at a meeting last month in Geneva, but North Korea "changed its mind at the last minute," South Korea's quasi-official Yonhap news agency reported Sunday.

"We are really running out of time," Hill said last week in Seoul.

Observers in Seoul said the scheduling of the Singapore meeting signaled that the two sides might have quietly made progress.

North Korea tested a nuclear device in October 2006, adding urgency to six-nation nuclear talks led by China and including the Koreas, Russia, Japan and the United States. Hill and Kim are meeting under the umbrella of the talks.

A big question is whether North Korea will acknowledge shipping nuclear technology to Syria. Israeli jet fighters bombed a Syrian facility last September where North Korea is alleged to have been assisting.

The Israeli Haaretz.com Web site said Monday that Washington and Jerusalem have agreed to reveal details of North Korea's proliferation to Syria as a pressure tactic on Pyongyang.

The new meetings come as relations between North Korea and South Korea remain in a tailspin since the inauguration in Seoul on Feb. 25 of President Lee Myung-bak. Lee is moving to end a decade-old "sunshine policy" of appeasing North Korea with food and economic aid.

North Korea has lashed out at Lee as a "traitor" and a U.S. "sycophant." Pyongyang sent jet fighters close to the border nearly a dozen times late last month, and expelled 11 South Korean managers from a joint industrial zone.

The Bush administration is eager to carry off a major foreign-policy victory in its final months even as the North Korea talks appear to be losing momentum.

Some scholars think that North Korean negotiators are playing for time as Beijing turns its attention toward domestic matters and Washington enters an election year.

"They like to play until the eleventh hour. They feel the closer they come to next November, the more eager Chris Hill and the administration will be to cut a deal," said Ralph A. Cossa, the head of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center.

A scholar in Beijing said China's "main focus is on how to make the Olympic Games successful" when they unfold in August in the capital.

"Of course, the six-party talks are an important issue on the foreign policy agenda. But it's not the top priority," said Jin Linbo, a North Korea watcher at the China Institute of International Studies.

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