South Korean intelligence analysts predict North Korean commanders will raise the tempo of shock strikes in the new year to enhance the image of leader Kim Jong-il’s son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, and prove their loyalty to the Kim dynasty.
A leading South Korean think tank affiliated with the South’s National Intelligence Service came out with that forecast this weekend – along with the prediction that Kim Jong-un, in his late 20s, would become vice chairman of the North’s powerful National Defense Commission. His father rules as commission chairman in addition to his post as general secretary of the Workers’ Party.
The Institute for National Security Strategy, an offshoot of the National Intelligence Service, warned of increasing “unexpected moves” as the North’s huge military machine of 1.1 million troops “scrambles to display its loyalty” to Kim Jong-un.
The institute says North Korea may strike anywhere, by surprise, from the Yellow Sea to outposts along the 160-mile-long demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas since the signing of the Korean War truce in July 1953.
The goal, says the report, will be “to increase special forces and develop strategies for dominance in limited conflicts.”
2010 attacks probably tied to upcoming succession
Analysts have often expressed the view that the need to promote Kim Jong-un as a strong military leader had much to do with the torpedoing in March of a South Korean navy vessel, the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors, and the Nov. 23 bombardment of a remote island in which two marines and two civilians died.
Kim Jong-un, with no military background, was given the rank of a four-star general in late September and made his public debut in Pyongyang at a massive parade on Oct. 10 that marked the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party.
More attacks or more nuclear testing?
The assessment of the intelligence think tank differs markedly from one issued earlier by the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security, affiliated with the foreign ministry.
The diplomatic think tank agrees that the need to promote Kim Jong-un lies behind the rising confrontation, but predicts the North will focus on staging a third nuclear test while holding off on attacks against South Korean targets.
Whatever the forecast, each reveals the nervousness here about North Korea’s strategy and tactics.
“Military provocations and nuclear tests are all options on the table,” says Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification, which is affiliated with the unification ministry. “They want to increase tensions.”
The succession of Kim Jong-un to power, Mr. Choi adds, is “one of the major reasons they have a hard-line policy.”
South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak and his newly appointed defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, have vowed a strong response to future North Korean attacks, but clearly no one has any real idea where or when the North will strike next.
South Korea's show of strength
South Korean infantry, armored artillery, and air forces staged a massive exercise last Thursday about 20 miles of the demilitarized zone, and South Korean naval vessels this week are again playing war games off the coast but far from North Korean waters.
Such large-scale exercises have become far more frequent in recent months than in the past few years – though they are not likely to be within range of the type of North Korean artillery that bombarded Yeonpyong Island in the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23. An exception was a brief artillery exercise one week ago on the island – a show of force intended to prove that South Korea was not intimidated by the attack.
North Korean restraint – for now
North Korea did not respond to that drill, but North Korean soldiers bragged on television in Pyongyang of their success in last month’s bombardment. As one soldier, Kim Moon-chol, put it, “Our eyes were full of fire right after we saw the enemy's shells being fired into our sacred waters.”
North Korea contends that it opened the barrage after South Korean shells landed in North Korean waters.
North Korea has long challenged South Korean control over the Northern Limit Line, set three years after the Korean War and disputed in several bloody flare-ups in recent years.
North Korea continues to deny anything to do with the sinking of the Cheonan but has no compunctions about publicizing the Yellow Sea barrage.
“At the order of ‘fire,’” said Kim Moon-chol, “we poured our merciless thunderbolt of fire at the enemy.”