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SEOUL — The ongoing disaster in Japan could ironically have a positive impact on relations between the two Koreas, rather than setting the stage for the North to initiate more aggression, according to a sampling of experts.

Paik Hak-soon of the Seoul-area Sejong Institute said North Korea has in recent months tried to position itself as an advocate for a more-stable peace on the peninsula, and the rogue nation might see the ongoing crisis as a “natural opportunity” to craft an image as a nation concerned with humanitarian issues.

The North Korean Central News Agency — the state-run media organization — reported Monday that the chairman of the North’s Red Cross Society had sent a message of support and sympathy to his counterpart in Japan.

“Upon hearing the sad news that the northeastern part of your country was hit by (an) unprecedented earthquake and tsunami that claimed huge casualties and material losses, I extend deep sympathy and consolation to you and, through you, to the victims and their families on behalf of the (North Korea) Red Cross Society,” Jang Jae On was quoted as saying in his message.

Paik scoffed at the suggestion the North might try to take advantage of the fact that the eyes of the world — and a lot of U.S. military assets — are focused on Japan.

“To exploit the disaster in Japan — Oh my gosh, that’s not appropriate for North Korea or any other nation,” he said.

Robert Carlin, a former U.S. intelligence specialist for Northeast Asia, pointed out that last year’s two attacks — the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island — “weren’t timed to coincide to the U.S. being ‘distracted.’ ”

China also has surprised some with relief efforts for its historic rival; it has sent search-and-rescue teams to Ofunato, a small city hit hard by tsunami waters, and has offered to send a hospital ship.

While another “small-scale, provocative move” from North Korea is “always possible,” Carlin said it is highly unlikely given the additional U.S. ships, aircraft, personnel and equipment in the region to assist in the response to the disaster in Japan.

“They march to the beat of their own drum on these things,” he said, referring to the North. “The only time one might really worry would be if there were a major move of U.S. assets out of the area.”

When asked if South Korea might be more vulnerable to a North Korean attack given the amount of U.S. military manpower and equipment now focused on events in Japan, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea referred a reporter to comments USFK commander Gen. Walter Sharp made to Stars and Stripes earlier this year. In that interview about the safety of U.S. military families in South Korea, Sharp said he monitored the security threat posed by North Korea every day and was “very comfortable” with what he saw.

Both Yang Mu-jin, a South Korea-based professor at the University of North Korean Studies, and Shin Beomchul, the chief research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said North Korea is most likely done for the time being with any aggression.

Now, they said, leaders of the hermit kingdom are focused on making good on the promise they have made for years to their people that North Korea will be economically prosperous by 2012 — the 100 anniversary of the birth of the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung.

“North Korea needs economic support now from outside, including South Korea, to achieve its goal to be a greater country in 2012,” Shin said.

In recent months, the North has repeatedly called for greater dialogue with South Korea and the U.S., and took part in low-level talks with the South that broke down before higher-level talks could be arranged.

Just this week, North Korean officials were quoted on the KCNA Web site as saying they were ready to once again participate in six-party talks about nuclear disarmament, including the issue of uranium enrichment.

In addition, the North agreed to accept the return of 27 North Koreans whose fishing boat drifted into South Korean waters in early February. Four others on the boat have chosen to defect. North Korea initially balked at the idea of taking any of its countrymen back unless all 31 were returned.

rabiroffj@pstripes.osd.mil; rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil; chang.yookyong@pstripes.osd.mil

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