How serious is the bombast from North Korea?

North Korea issued more heated rhetoric denouncing the annual US-South Korea military drills that started today.

KCNA/REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) visits a unit under the Command of the Korean People's Army 4th Corps stationed in the southwestern sector of North Korea, in this undated picture released by the North's KCNA in Pyongyang February 26.

Thousands of South Korean and US troops opened annual war games today against the background of strident rhetoric from North Korea.

The verbal blasts from Pyongyang appeared considerably more inflammatory than usual, raising searching questions as to the nature and intentions of a regime now ostensibly led by the untested third-generation heir to the North's ruling dynasty.

US and Korean analysts worry about the meaning of the threats from North Korea as the country’s youthful new leader Kim Jong-un asserts his authority in increasingly strong terms. The critical question is whether the rhetoric is just a somewhat louder version of the denunciations regularly fired by North Korea during war games before the death of Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il in December.

“We don't know if Kim Jong-un plays by the same playbook or by something wholly different given his lack of experience and the need to legitimize himself as a ‘strong’ leader,” says Victor Cha, who directed Asian affairs for the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Dr. Cha says he's watching “with greater apprehension any negative rhetoric coming out of the North. Before, we could chalk it up to typical North Korean tactics.”

'Ready to fight'

Tensions escalated Monday as thousands of US and South Korean troops opened two weeks of war games. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency declared its forces “ready to fight a war” in which “the war mongers will meet destruction.”

Kim Jong-un, in the role of “supreme commander” that he has had since his father died in December, vowed “powerful retaliatory strikes” if US and South Korean troops enter North Korean waters.

Mr. Kim made the threat in a visit to a military unit by the Yellow Sea last weekend, evoking memories of the artillery barrage on nearby Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 in which two South Korean marines and two civilians died. North Korea accused the South Koreans, who were conducting military exercises at the time, of opening fire on their territory.

By staging the current exercises, said the Korean Central News Agency, US and South Korean forces were “guilty of unpardonable infringement upon the sovereignty of North Korea.”

The US command has been careful to stress the harmless nature of the exercises in which as many as 200,000 South Korean troops and several thousand Americans conduct exercises more often than not on computers. The command said the exercises – called Key Resolve – were “entirely non-provocative in nature.”

North Korea fired its loudest rhetorical barrages after two days of talks in Beijing last week between the new US envoy on North Korea, Glyn Davies, and the veteran North Korean negotiator Kim Kye-gwan. Mr. Davies, stopping here on the weekend, said the talks were “serious” and “substantive” and had made “a little progress” but did not go into details.

Hot-and-cold rhetoric

A spokesman for North Korea’s foreign ministry, explaining the hot-and-cold nature of its rhetoric, said Monday the North was “fully ready for dialogue and war” – an ambivalent remark that suggested uncertainty among North Korean leaders.

It was North Korea, not the US, that requested the talks, apparently to see about getting direly needed food aid, but North Korean rhetoric indicated the North was not about to yield to demands for signs of giving up its nuclear program. Instead, on Saturday, the North put out a reminder of the danger posed by long-range missiles capable of carrying warheads with a statement to the effect that “the US is sadly mistaken if it thinks it is safe as its mainland is far across the ocean.”

Scott Snyder, director of US-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, assumes “the two sides failed to come to terms” in the Beijing talks but holds out hopes for eventually returning to six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program, last held in Beijing in 2008. The question, he says, is whether “something different has developed in North Korea’s leadership transition” – possibly pressure to show military strength.

"North Korean rhetoric has always been way over the top,” says David Straub, former Korea desk officer at the State Department. “Recently, however, the tone and the threats seem, if anything, even more menacing.”

In view of North Korea’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 and “uncertainties surrounding the new leadership, says Mr. Straub, associate director of Korea studies at Stanford, the US and South Korea “need to be even more militarily vigilant than usual.” At the same time, he cautions, “they need to take care not to gratuitously offend or give excuses to North Korea by word or by deed.”

Martial arts display

Against the backdrop of strident rhetoric from the North, the agency responsible for the president’s security put on the display of defensive expertise Monday. Martial arts experts battered one another, armored black limousines roared and screeched, and explosions crackled on cue in front of the Blue House, the office and residential complex of South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak.

“We are well prepared to deal with any provocation. We are watching very seriously,” says Eo Cheong-soo, chief of the presidential security service, as he watched his men. 

Also in attendance was South Korean Lt. Gen. Shin Hyun-don, who said he was not worried. There was “no sign of North Korean troop movements,” he says. “There’s always more of a threat. We go on preparing more defense.” 

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