US, South Korea not backing down to North Korea's threats
Outsiders may think war could break out at any minute, and perhaps it could. But for South Koreans, the current crisis with North Korea is just another chapter in a long history of confrontations with their provocative neighbor.
And despite a steady parade of high-profile demonstrations of U.S. military hardware in the last two weeks, most American troops stationed in South Korea seem more worried about furloughs of civilian defense workers and other sequestration cuts than the prospect of major fighting or a nuclear attack.
The steadily escalating tensions, which have been playing out like a tit-for-tat chess game between North Korea and the U.S.-South Korean alliance, have been grabbing headlines around the world, leading to worried “Are you OK?” phone calls and emails to expatriates living in South Korea from family and friends back home.
There are concerns that North Korea might make a targeted provocation, such as when it shelled a South Korean island near the two countries’ disputed maritime boundary in 2011 or when it sank a South Korean naval vessel earlier that same year. The hermit regime has developed a tradition of challenging new South Korean presidents, and Park Geun-hye has only been in office two months.
Given the current levels of readiness, it might not take much for a similar attack to spin out of control. North Korea must know that an all-out attack would be virtual suicide, especially with questions about whether ally China would intervene, as it did during the Korean War.
North Korea has been using brinksmanship for two decades to wring aid and concessions from the West. This time, there have been worrisome actions – its first successful three-stage rocket launch in December, followed by its third and most powerful nuclear weapons test in February.
That has been followed by bellicose rhetoric and other maneuvers: threats to turn Seoul and Washington, D.C., into a “sea of fire,” a cutoff of two-way communications at the Demilitarized Zone, a declaration that the Korean War armistice was invalid and claims that the peninsula was in a “state of war," that missiles were ready for launch and that the North could run roughshod over the U.S. and South Korean militaries and take over the South in three days. And on Tuesday, Pyongyang declared it would restart a mothballed plutonium reactor and ramp up production of weapons-grade uranium.
While the U.S. and South Korea have in the past chosen appeasement over confrontation, they are playing the chess game this time without blinking. And unlike North Korea, which has shown no signs yet of a real military buildup, Washington has shown what its forces are capable of doing.
While holding their largest annual joint military exercise with South Korea, the U.S. has made a quiet but very conspicuous show of force, with B-52s, a nuclear attack submarine and F-22s brought in for the maneuvers and a pair of B-2 Stealth bombers making a nonstop, 6,500-mile round trip flight from Missouri — at a cost of $2.1 million — just to drop dummy bombs on a target range.
The latest moves have been defensive: the USS McCain, an Aegis-class guided-missile destroyer used for ballistic missile defense, is being positioned off the peninsula’s southwestern coast, and a sea-based radar platform is being moved closer to North Korea to track possible missile launches.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s new president has promised a “strong response” to any North Korean attack and has given local military units the power to react on their own as she seeks to avoid looking weak, like her predecessor did after the island shelling and ship-sinking incidents.
Civilians and troops alike have been watching all of these developments with a certain amount of apprehension. After all, North Korea does have nuclear weapons, an improved delivery system — as shown by the rocket launch — and a new leader of its own who is eager to curry favor with the powerful military. Kim Jong Un might be painting himself into a corner by threatening too much, to the point where he has to do something to save face.
But there also is a sense that North Korea will soon announce what it really wants out of the crisis — likely food and other aid for the impoverished country and direct talks with Washington — in exchange for putting its nuclear weapons development on hold yet again.
What will be of particular interest at that point is whether the U.S. and its allies will be willing to talk or whether the harder-line approach of meeting loud threats with shows of force will continue, and how this chess game will end.