North Korea today unleashed its deadliest threat so far in a campaign of mounting rhetoric that began with its failed long-range rocket launch on April 13.
Coming after a series of tirades against the South, the North threatened “special actions” that, as reported by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, went well beyond the rhetoric in which Pyongyang has been engaging for years. This time, the military command was quoted as saying, “Once special actions kick off, they will reduce all the rat-like groups and the bases for provocations in three or four minutes.”
Although there were no signs that a North Korean attack was imminent, the rising rhetoric disturbs commanders at a time when US and South Korean forces are devising ways to be able to coordinate closely under battlefield conditions.
“I worry more about readiness,” says Major Gen. Edward C. Cardon, commander of America’s forward-most combat troops in Asia, the Second Infantry Division. “There’s always the potential for something to happen here.”
Cardon, headquartered north of Seoul, cites “provocations over the past two years” as evidence that North Korea might again try to take the South by surprise. Those incidents, he notes, include the sinking in March 2010 of the South Korean ship the Cheonan in which 46 sailors died and the shelling eight months later of nearby Yeonpyeong Island that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians.
Today's North Korean tirade was worded to evoke memories – and to fuel fears of a sudden artillery barrage or even a short-range missile shot across the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the Korean War ended in an armistice in July 1953.
The Korean Central News Agency warned that attacks would involve “unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style” – turns of phrase contrived to keep South Koreans and their American allies guessing. The sense here is that North Korea might well be planning a third underground nuclear test after the humiliation of the failed rocket shot on April 13, two days ahead of the 100th anniversary of the North’s founding “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung.
Concerns for US commanders
One overriding question confronting US commanders is how to assess the role of the country’s new leader Kim Jong-un, how much power he really wields over his generals and how he’s likely to want to lead North Korea.
“Kim Jong-un does things that are different,” says Cardon. He cites Mr. Kim’s 20-minute address to the nation in the centennial ceremonies as a surprise considering that his father, Kim Jong-il, who died last December, hardly spoke in public.
Cardon is reluctant “to reach conclusions,” but there is no doubt the guessing game is a particular source of concern for the 28,500 US troops now stationed in South Korea preparing for South Korea’s armed forces to be ready by 2015 to take over operational command in the event of war.
The transition from US to South Korean command presents extraordinary problems for Cardon, whose 10,000 troops form the core of US combat forces in South Korea. Some analysts doubt if the change from US to South Korean command will work out in the event of a second Korean War.
Bruce Bechtol, author of books and studies on North Korea’s military structure, believes “there really is no ‘replacement’ command and control arrangement that can be as effective as the Combined Forces Command,” the top-most command, now led by a US four-star general.
“It is my hope,” says Mr. Bechtol, who was stationed here as an intelligence analyst in the Marines, “that before dismantling CFC, both nations will conduct a fair unbiased evaluation of whether or not CFC should in fact be dismantled in 2015.”
“Not all options and capabilities have to do with new equipment,” says Cardon, talking at his residence at the main US military base in Seoul. “You can have better leaders and training.” Moreover, he adds, “A lot has to do with the ability to adapt.”
Concern about South's military ability
The general, an Army engineer who has led troops in eastern Europe and Iraq, took command of the Second Infantry Division amid a complicated transition in which it’s supposed to deploy to an expanded US military base well south of here by 2015.
He speaks highly of South Korean troops but is concerned about their ability to defend the South at positions along the demilitarized zone, which stretches 150 miles across the Korean peninsula. No US troops are now stationed in the northern reaches of South Korea with the exception of a token force at the truce village of Panmunjom, 40 miles north of here.
“The ROK” – for Republic of Korea forces – “has to have capable, better training, better leader development,” says Cardon.
Meanwhile, he is determined to make sure US and South Korean forces learn to coordinate far more effectively than they are now able to. “The more we can interoperate with each other, the more powerful we are,” he says. “I am interested in communications.”
Yes, he says, they’re “a lot better in the last several months,” adding, “There’s work being done, and I’m happy.”