After threatening the US, North Korea turns its ire on South Korea

North Korea reacted to the UN Security Council's unanimous vote to condemn the North's recent satellite launch by announcing that it would now take 'strong physical countermeasures against' the South.

Jason Lee/Reuters
US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies speaks to the media in Beijing, January 25. The US envoy for the North Korean nuclear dispute said on Friday that North Korea's rhetoric was deeply troubling and counterproductive, after Pyongyang threatened to attack South Korea if Seoul joined a new round of tightened UN Sanctions.

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North Korea today issued yet another verbal volley in response to the United Nations’ condemnation of the launching of a satellite late last year, this time directing its threats at South Korea.

Pyongyang’s sharp words have exasperated the international community – even China, its most critical ally, which voiced its frustration in an editorial today after backing punitive UN measures against the North earlier this week. 

Pyongyang warned Seoul that if it signed on to the series of fresh international sanctions against the North, it would retaliate. 

"Sanctions mean a war and a declaration of war against us,” the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said today, according to Reuters. "If the puppet group of traitors takes a direct part in the UN 'sanctions,' the DPRK will take strong physical counter-measures against it.”

Earlier this week, the UN Security Council members unanimously condemned Pyongyang’s rocket launch in December and expanded current sanctions. The US followed up with sanctions of its own yesterday, prompting North Korea to threaten additional rocket launches and nuclear tests against the US, its “sworn enemy.” 

Whether there is any substance to these threats is unclear. As The Wall Street Journal notes, “North Korea often threatens the South with attack without following through with action.”  

But South Korean defense ministry officials said this week that they believe the North could follow through with its threat to detonate a nuclear explosive at any time, and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that even if there are no signs that a test is forthcoming, "They have the capability, frankly, to conduct these tests in a way that make it very difficult to determine whether or not they are doing it,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier writes that US officials seem torn over how seriously to take the North’s threats. Mr. Panetta said earlier this month, referring to a North Korean satellite launch in December, that “North Korea just fired a missile. It’s an intercontinental ballistic missile, for God sakes. That means they have the capability to strike the United States.” His predecessor, Secretary Robert Gates, warned the North could reach the US with a missile by 2015 or 2016.

But, Mr. Grier also writes, “North Korean officials have long talked with bellicosity unmatched in geostrategic circles.”

Some say that when it comes to their nuclear missile programs, this chest thumping is largely a bluff – pro wrestling drama translated for an international stage.

Their past missile tests have been maximized to give the appearance of performance, and they have never exploded an actual nuclear warhead design, according to RAND analyst Markus Schiller.

Thus concerns about their missile tests are overblown, wrote Mr. Schiller in a lengthy 2012 report on North Korea’s missile programs. 

“Every launch further depletes the limited North Korean arsenals, and North Korea gains no real experience from these events. Since the purpose of the launches seems to be political, the United States and other nations should downplay or even ignore them,” he writes. 

China, Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner and most critical ally, has appointed itself the unofficial mediator between the North and the international community. In an editorial, the Global Times asserts that China cannot take sides, nor will it  “stay aloof” from the dispute between the North and South and its international backers.  

But in the editorial, Beijing voiced exasperation with Pyongyang’s recalcitrance and provocative actions.

It seems that North Korea does not appreciate China's efforts. It criticized China without explicitly naming it in its statement yesterday: "Those big countries, which are obliged to take the lead in building a fair world order, are abandoning without hesitation even elementary principles, under the influence of the US' arbitrary and high-handed practices, and failing to come to their senses."

China's role and position are clear when discussing North Korea issue in the UN Security Council. If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea. If the US, Japan and South Korea promote extreme UN sanctions on North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these draft resolutions.

Just let North Korea be "angry." We can't sit by and do nothing just because we are worried it might impact the Sino-North Korean relationship. Just let the US, Japan and South Korea grumble about China. We have no obligation to soothe their feelings.

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