ANALYSIS: Defense experts doubt North Korea’s threats will turn into action

April 02, 2013


North Korea has reached new heights of belligerence, warning of a “pre-emptive nuclear strike” against the United States, announcing a “state of war” with South Korea, and listing specific targets in Japan for attack.

But the bellicose nation is the one that appears most worried about triggering a war in Northeast Asia.

“Pyongyang is fully aware that it will pay the price if it makes an unwise move,” said a South Korean military official.

Tokyo, Seoul and Washington have been on alert amid Pyongyang’s repeated threats. But they believe North Korea’s words are aimed at winning concessions from the United States, not taking action that could prompt a devastating retaliation from the U.S. military.

North Korea is stepping up its belligerence to protest the United Nations Security Council’s resolution to widen sanctions against Pyongyang over its third nuclear test in February. The country also opposes Key Resolve 2013, the joint military exercise by South Korean and U.S. troops designed to protect the South from an invasion by the North.

Pyongyang declared that it “would totally nullify the Korean Armistice Agreement from March 11, when the U.S. nuclear-war rehearsal gets into full swing.” The agreement was signed to end the hostilities of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

North Korea later announced the two Koreas have entered a state of war, and that Pyongyang has taken a “combat-ready posture’’ and is fully prepared to strike at any time.

The mainstream view of defense experts is that Pyongyang will refrain from turning its words into action, considering the agreement signed by South Korea and the United States on March 22.

Under that agreement, U.S. forces will join South Korean military action taken in response to North Korean provocations. A previous agreement on such joint military action did not mention provocations, only full-scale war.

The March 22 agreement was made in response to North Korea’s shelling of South Korea’s Daeyeonpyeongdo island in November 2010 that killed four people.


Despite its threats and taunts, the North Korean military has shown no unusual activity other than flaunting its war games.

In fact, a source familiar with the situation on the Korean Peninsula said Pyongyang has been vigilant about keeping everything under control to prevent an accident that could trigger a crisis.

“On the front line, troops are strictly ordered not to make any inadvertent move,” the source said.

The country mentioned the possibility of closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex in Kaesong, where many South Korean businesses operate as part of economic cooperation between the two neighbors.

However, North Korea still permits entry to the complex by South Korean business representatives.

North Korea watchers say Pyongyang could go ahead with another nuclear test or a test launch of a long-range missile on April 15, the 101st anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that the North will conduct a test to boost the national prestige as well,” an official close to the South Korean government said.

Japan has also been on the receiving end of threats from Pyongyang, which said on March 31 that U.S. military bases in Japan--Yokosuka, Misawa and Okinawa--are on its list of targets for attack.

North Korea’s medium-range Rodong ballistic missile--of which the country has deployed an estimated 200--could reach those targeted bases.

The Japanese government reacted calmly to that threat.

“It is highly regrettable that the North is repeating its provocative words,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on April 1. “We strongly urge the North to refrain from making any sort of provocation.”

Experts say North Korea wants to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula to drag Washington to the negotiating table. They say Pyongyang is desperate to sign a peace treaty that will replace the 60-year-old armistice and to win a U.S. guarantee that the Kim family’s regime will remain intact.

“The North is intensifying its words more than ever in the past because it now wants to move forward on its strained relations with the United States in a single go,” said a source familiar with North Korean affairs.

The tough talk may also be intended to enable Kim Jong Un, who has been in power for just over a year, to tighten his grip on the regime.

The young Kim has moved to take full command of the North Korean military by calling meetings with military brass in the wee hours and making a series of inspections of front-line troops, observers said.

Such action is seen as Kim’s attempt to show the public that he has control over the military. He also wants to show the people that North Korea is a strong country.

At a plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea on March 31, North Korean leaders adopted a policy to develop the nation’s economy and nuclear program simultaneously.

North Korea also passed legislation to upgrade its status to that of a nuclear power during a meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly on April 1.


The leadership’s actions and threats have forced the North Korean people to live in fear of U.N. sanctions that could further cripple the country’s already anemic economy.

To ease public discontent with the nation’s economic woes, Pak Pong Ju, an advocate for economic reform, returned to the office of premier after a six-year hiatus, according to a source familiar with the North Korean situation.

“The North’s leadership is desperate (to see results) since it may face an eruption of public dissatisfaction in a single burst if it gains nothing after engaging in a game of chicken with the United States,” the source said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a Diet session on March 28 that Japan is teaming up with the United States and South Korea to gather and analyze intelligence concerning North Korea.

Abe noted that the nullification of the armistice with South Korea was a higher level of threat than North Korea’s declaration to turn Seoul into “sea of fire” in 1994.

That year, tensions between North Korea and the United States heightened after a report emerged that Pyongyang was running a nuclear program.

Despite the latest North Korean belligerence, the Japanese government is set to call on U.N. members to enforce the Security Council’s resolution on expanded sanctions, rather than respond to North Korea’s rhetoric.

Tokyo will also confirm cooperation with Seoul and Washington concerning Pyongyang when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits Japan this month.

Still, Japan is not ignoring the unpredictable country.

Defense Ministry officials pointed out the need to factor in a possible incident caused by North Korea that is not included in their scenarios.

The ministry is in the process of deploying the U.S. military’s early-warning radar in Japan to prepare for a possible military strike by North Korea, which expanded its range with a ballistic missile test in December.

(This article was written by Akihiko Kaise in Seoul and Isamu Nikaido in Tokyo.)

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un examines plans for a possible attack at an emergency meeting with top military officials on March 29. (Korea News Service)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un examines plans for a possible attack at an emergency meeting with top military officials on March 29. (Korea News Service)

  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un examines plans for a possible attack at an emergency meeting with top military officials on March 29. (Korea News Service)

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