North Korea appears to be testing the will of South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, while looking forward to a cozy working relationship with the incoming US administration of president-elect Barack Obama.
That is the optimistic scenario as the North runs through a catalogue of measures, symbolic and substantive, all geared to force South Korea's conservative president towards softening his seemingly hardline stance on the North.
The pessimistic scenario, as the North prepares to close its border with South Korea and sets new conditions on inspections of its nuclear facilities, is that a cabal of militarists is taking control in North Korea at an extremely critical juncture in which leader Kim Jong-il is too ill to rule effectively.
Whichever theory is correct, North Korean strategists seem to have adopted a policy of steadily escalating confrontation that began with insulting rhetoric aimed at Lee for talking tough about verifying North Korea's compliance with an agreement to disable its nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
Washington's problem in the eight years of George W Bush's presidency was how to mesh his initially hardline outlook with the "Sunshine" policy of reconciliation initiated by Kim Dae-jung. Now the question is whether Obama will want to go along with the conservative outlook of Lee.
[Excerpt of an article by Donald Kirk, Asia Times]