North Korea abandons armistice: 4 key questions answered

Tensions on the Korean peninsula are ratcheting up. The US has started its annual war games with South Korean forces, and North Korea has used that fact to declare that it is invalidating the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953. What really has North Korea upset, though, is the tough, new sanctions passed by the United Nations in response to the North's nuclear test last month.

Here are the top four questions analysts are wrestling with on the heels of these developments.

Q. North Korea has declared invalid the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War. How big a deal is this?

South Korean soldiers patrol along a barbed-wire fence near the demilitarized zone, which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul, Monday. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

A. The dictatorship has repeatedly violated the terms of the armistice by the use of lethal force against South Korean forces, notes Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. This happened most recently in 2010 when a North Korean submarine torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean military sailors. 

While a rhetorical threat to ignore the terms of the cease-fire is less consequential than the actual violations of the agreement in past years, notes Dr. Cronin, the bluster is still disturbing.

Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to ignore the terms of the cease-fire, a move that is “potentially quite dangerous” because it sets out the rules of interaction for the troops along the 38th parallel of the demilitarized zone, adds Victor Cha, senior adviser and the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“If North Korea decides to drive trucks or bring heavier weapons into that area, that would be a violation of the armistice and potentially quite destabilizing because we would have to react to the introduction of heavy armaments,” he said. “The point is that this is the most heavily militarized border in the world that is on a hair-trigger response.”

Q. How about the nuclear threat to carry out a preemptive nuclear strike against US “aggressors?” Is this credible?

A North Korean soldier stands in front of the country's Unha-3 rocket at Sohae Satellite Station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea, last year. (David Guttenfelder/AP)

A. Last week, a North Korean official said the North would pursue "a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors." While such threats are not credible in the sense that North Korea could not use nuclear missiles to reach continental American shores, that is clearly a goal of the North Korean government.   

In 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that Pyongyang was within five years of being able to strike the US with an intercontinental ballistic missile. “In that sense, [the threat] is quite worrying, because that was two years ago,” says Mr. Cha, adding that such a technological breakthrough could conceivably happen during President Obama’s current term in office.   

“We’ve been watching the missile and nuclear program in North Korea as much as you can watch secret programs,” Cronin of CNAS notes. Though North Korea has not tested any kind of nuclear warhead or long-range missile with the technology it needs to reach the United States, North Korean missiles could hit “many” US targets in South Korea and Japan.   

That said, Cronin adds, “There are plenty of other ways for North Korea to hurt us, including cyberspace attacks.”

Q. The US and South Korean military launched military exercises this month. What are they for?

The South Korean Army participates in Foal Eagle, a joint maneuver between South Korea and the US near the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas in this 2012 file photo. This year's exercises began on March 1. (Ahn Young-joon/Reuters/File)

A. The series of military drills, which go by the operational names Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, are annual exercises and are scheduled to last for the next two months.  

North Korea has deemed these exercises “an open declaration of war.” US military officials, on the other hand, insist that the exercises are defensive in nature, and unrelated to current tensions.   

More than 3,000 US troops are scheduled to take part in the exercises.   

These war games enable US forces to practice for “a whole range of contingencies that we can only guess at – which on Day 1 [of any potential future attack] will have to be recalibrated,” says Cronin. “War games allow you to think through state collapse [of North Korea], provocation, or use of a dirty bomb.”

Q. Do the threats and the nuclear tests make North Korean leader Kim Jong-un more dangerous than his father, Kim Jong-il?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (l.) and former NBA star Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and US players in an exhibition basketball game at an arena in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Feb. 28. (Jason Mojica/VICE Media/AP)

A. The short answer to the question appears to be a rather definitive "yes," according to analysts.    

Kim Jong-un has launched two long-range rockets, engaged in nuclear testing, and renounced the war truce with a bellicosity that “far exceeds” the early days of his father, who took over in 1994, says Cronin. “Kim Jong-un has been so much more reckless than his father or grandfather ever was.”    

Part of the concern is the unpredictability of Kim Jong-un's behavior. “We don’t know how he views the world, we don’t know how he views the credibility of his own nuclear arsenal, we don’t know whether he views the US and South Korea as paper tigers,” says Cha.     

One theory is that all of the bluster is for domestic consumption and that Kim is merely trying to prove his credentials to a society in which there are mythical, rather than political leaders, Cha adds.     

“Another theory is that Jong-un doesn’t really have control over the military, which is acting tougher in a period of time where they see themselves as vulnerable because they have a 28-year-old running the country.”    

Kim’s behavior is less a question of rationality versus irrationality than unpredictability, Cha argues. “All of his actions thus far show unpredictability. Look at his meeting with Dennis Rodman – no expert would have predicted that.”