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Is North Korea just pulling America’s pigtail?

As the U.N. Security Council weighs its reaction to North Korea's third and largest nuclear test, leader Kim Jong Un's government gave diplomats in New York something new to chew on.

Speaking at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, the North Korean official Jon Yong Ryong warned the gathering of international diplomats that his government was prepared to take action against South Korea.

"As the saying goes, a new-born puppy knows no fear of a tiger. South Korea's erratic behavior would only herald its final destruction," he said.

The remarks came on a day when South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak delivered his farewell address to the nation he will cease leading on Monday, when a new South Korean leader, Park Geun-hye, will take up the reins of power. Clearly, the North Korean leadership was hoping to see him off with a final goodbye kick on his way out.

But it was the second time in a week that North Korea has threatened military action, raising concerns in New York that Pyongyang is eager to stay on a path of confrontation for a bit longer. Last week, the North Korean government issued a similar statement warning the United States that it was prepared to take action if Washington pursues further steps to rein in its activities.

"If the United States makes the situation complicated by remaining hostile through the end we will have no choice but to take serial measures with more intense second and third response," the statement warned. It added that the interdiction of North Korean vessels "will be instantly regarded as an act of war and will lead to our relentless retaliatory strikes on their bases."

Last week, Reuters reported that North Korea has informed China, its most important ally, that is is preparing for a new round of missile launches or nuclear tests. The move suggested that Kim Jong Un, far from looking for a way to lower the temperature, was turning up the furnace.

But to what end?

North Korea's threats are unlikely to soften the Western response to its nuclear test. On Monday, the European Union agreed to impose a new round of sanctions aimed at further isolating North Korea from the international financial and banking communities.

Perhaps North Korea is hoping to scare China into blocking a new round of more intrusive U.N. financial and diplomatic sanctions being pressed by the United States and its Asian and European allies. In their preliminary discussion with Security Council colleagues, Chinese diplomats have urged their Western partners not to overact to the North Korean action. But some officials say that China, infuriated by North Korean's refusal to heed its calls for restraint, is now prepared to inflict some pain on its troublesome neighbor.

Some U.N. diplomats said they believe that North Korea is simply trying to strengthen its hand in its dealing with the United States.

"When a mischievous boy wants to get a girl's attention he will pull her pigtail," said one Asian diplomat who follows the issue. The main goal of the tough talk, the official said, is to scare the United States into re-engaging with North Korea. "I think the new leadership wants to show the Americans that they are capable of escalating."

George Lopez, a former member of a U.N. Security Council panel monitoring sanctions on North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, said Pyongyang's threats follow the usual pattern: "lots of bombast, lots of defiance, and then a moment of calm when they say let's talk."

But he said the world is confronting a country with a renewed level of self-confidence, brought on by a pair of highly successful ballistic missile and nuclear tests, within a very short time frame. "I don't treat this as bluster. They want to make a definitive statement that we are a power that needs to be dealt with," Lopez said.

"The United States is going to say we've been here before, but North Korea wants to present itself as having risen to a qualitatively different stage" in its military status.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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