Spring comes even to that most wintry of nations, North Korea. As the first crocuses appear along the banks of the romantic Yalu River, Korea's annual rite of spring goes into full swing.
Thirty thousand US and South Korean forces are conducting joint annual military maneuvers to intimidate North Korea. Amazingly, South Korea's 687,000-man armed forces remain under US command half a century after the Korean War - an interesting precedent for US-occupied Iraq. North Korea keeps claiming that South Korea is under US military occupation.
North Korea's `Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il has apparently recovered from a mysterious medical indisposition and is again feeling his `kimchi,' Korea's fiery and addictive version of sauerkraut.
So the fun-loving North Koreans lost no time, issuing their usual blood-curdling threats. These include turning South Korea into a `sea of fire,' setting Japan ablaze, and staging naval clashes in the Sea of Japan, which both Koreas, in rare agreement, insist be called the Eastern Sea.
North Korea is ostentatiously moving a Taepodong-2 medium-range ballistic missile onto a launch pad. Set to be shortly launched, the missile will put North Korea's first space satellite into orbit, according to Pyongyang. That's if it works, of course. North Korea's last technological `triumph,' a tiny nuclear test, fizzled in 2006.
The impending Taepodong launch ignited the usual international uproar. Japan went ballistic, threatening to shoot down the North Korean missile if it passes overhead. The US is issuing all sorts of dark warnings against Pyongyang, though Washington just said it did not plan to shoot down the missile. Commercial airliners are being rerouted away from North Korea.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sounding very much like the old Kremlin, denounced the impending test as `a provocation.' In 2006, under US pressure, the UN Security Council banned North Korea from further missile or nuclear tests. Pyonygang insists it's a space launch.
US officials warn the Taepodong-2 might be able to reach Hawaii and Alaska, putting one of America's most treasured assets, Gov. Sarah Palin, in grave peril.
Why North Korea would risk nuclear annihilation by the US remains unexplained. But thank you, `Dear Leader,' for the badly-needed diversion from the global financial meltdown
The US Navy, fearful Congress will torpedo its request for new warships, positioned two Aegis-class destroyers off Korea capable of downing the North Korean missile. The US Army has its own Patriot-3 missile interceptors in Japan and does not want the Navy to get all the glory.
Two American female journalists recently wandered into North Korea and are being held prisoner and put on trial, further complicating the diplomatic fracas.
The ham-handed diplomacy of South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung Bak, has infuriated North Korea. Pyongyang calls Lee a `traitor' and `US stooge.' `Fraternal reconciliation' between the two estranged Koreas is out the window.
So will the `Dear Leader's' missiles vaporize us? No. North Korea poses a serious military threat only to South Korea and Japan. For now, Wall Streets crooks remain a far bigger danger than the `Dear Leader.'
US intelligence chief Dennis Blair recently stated that the US-created global financial meltdown presents the greatest current threat to America's national security.
Kim-Jong-il does not want war. He wants to keep shaking down the US, Japan, South Korea and China for more cash, oil and food to feed his threadbare nation, and assure the continuation of the Kim dynasty.
Unfortunately, Kim's heir apparent was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a forged passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland. His youngest son, 26-year old Kim Jung-un, is now said to be in line. But you never know with those wacky Kims.
Anyway, what the `Dear Leader' really seems to fear is being ignored. Sabre rattling and extortion have brought him huge amounts of foreign aid. He almost achieved his second goal: a promise from Washington not to attack North Korea. But a `reunified' Korea under his dynasty remains elusive.
So long as North Korea maintains a tough, 1.1 million-man army, the US is unlikely to engage in another ground war in Korea. This means Korea's annual springtime kabuki ritual of threats, counter-threats, sabre-rattling and troops movements seems fated to continue.
How the Obama administration will deal with the Korean migraine is unclear. Washington could begin a springtime thaw by lifting its mean-spirited US ban on delivery of vintage French Bordeaux to the wine-loving `Dear Leader.' No wonder he's so cranky.