North Korea has a massive mechanized army poised along the demilitarized zone and an extensive missile force that threatens its neighbors with chemical and biological agents. Moreover, Pyongyang has a history of conducting acts of war and terrorism against the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
Experts debate whether North Korea has already created nuclear weapons and the missiles to hit the United States or whether that capability is another year or two away. But there is no doubt what path they are on. This is not a theoretical threat.
During the past two months, North Korea has issued an unprecedented series of deadly threats. Yes, many of them have been previously declared and not carried out. And there is circular history on the Korean Peninsula, with tensions ratcheting up every time the U.S. and South Korea conduct military exercises or the U.N. deliberates on new sanctions.
But this is new, more dangerous territory. Pyongyang has made threats not seen before. Had its recommendation for foreign diplomats to leave the country been issued by another country, alarm bells would be ringing. Instead, it has been dismissed by most as yet more bluster.
The regime has also issued very specific threats against South Korean military units and islands in the West Sea, the site of numerous previous deadly clashes. Perhaps most worrisome is that the regime’s threat du jour is occurring so rapidly. In the past, Pyongyang would issue a threat and then allow Washington and its allies time to respond, preferably by offering benefits to buy its way back to the status quo ante. The current rapid-fire threats conflict with previous North Korean behavior and reduce the potential for de-escalating the crisis.
Indications that Pyongyang may test launch an intermediate-range missile from a mobile launcher—another technological breakthrough—would trigger another round of U.N. deliberations and further North Korean provocations.
The threat has increased dramatically not only because of the North Korean rhetoric but because of the greater risk of miscalculation. Little is known about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Will he know when to stop ratcheting up tension, or will he stumble across a red line that triggers an allied response?
Greater Resolve in Seoul
And South Korea would certainly respond militarily to another attack. The artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 seems to have been a turning point not only for the South Korean government but, more significantly, the populace. There is greater public support for Seoul to retaliate, which newly inaugurated President Park Geun-hye has vowed to do.
South Korea has already loosened the rules of engagement, pushed the decision to respond to a lower command echelon, augmented its forces, and announced that it will not limit an attack to only the point of origin but will instead strike rear area command headquarters.
U.S. Caught Flat-Footed
Also worrisome is that the U.S. appears to have been caught by surprise by North Korea’s actions. As an avid basketball player, President Obama should know the dangers of playing catch-up ball. Allowing one’s opponent to direct the game and being forced to respond to his strategy is a recipe for disaster.
The Obama Administration directed the construction of 14 additional missile defense interceptors in Alaska and the deployment of a sea-based warning radar. Both of these were reversals of previous Obama decisions to cut or mothball capabilities to defend the…