Armistice dead? US and South Korea dismiss North Korea's edict

Skepticism about the effect of the North's dismissal of a cease-fire is grounded in past experience.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (c.) confers with military officers at a long-range artillery sub-unit of KPA Unit 641 during his visit to front-line military units near the western sea border in North Korea near the South's western border island of Baengnyeong on Monday.

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The US has scoffed at North Korea's announcement that it was nullifying the 1953 armistice with South Korea, even as it has issued a stern warning to the North not to carry through with threats of a nuclear attack.

"North Korean officials have made some highly provocative statements. North Korea's claims may be hyperbolic, but as to the policy of the United States, there should be no doubt: We will draw upon the full range of our capabilities to protect against, and to respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea," National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said yesterday, according to the Guardian.

"This includes not only any North Korean use of weapons of mass destruction but also, as the president made clear, their transfer of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials to other states or non-state entities. Such actions would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies and we will hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences."

The skepticism about the armistice nullification is grounded in past experience – North Korea has declared the armistice void multiple times.

North Korean state media said the US and South Korea "reduced the armistice agreement to a dead paper" when the two countries decided to carry out joint naval exercises that began yesterday, according to the Guardian. However, the exercises are an annual event point out US officials, and the latest round of sanctions against North Korea are the actual catalyst for the threats.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the North regularly portrays the military drills to its public as "a prelude to an invasion of the North" and threatens retaliation, but that its most recent threats are "higher pitched, reflecting Pyongyang's anger over United Nations sanctions."

The Christian Science Monitor's Steven Borowiec reports that despite the scrapping of the armistice and the cutting of the hotline, it may yet be bombast. Bong Young-shik, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Seoul, says precedence shows this could be more of a theatrical move than a harbinger of hostilities:  

“They’ve cut off communication before and it restarted. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to talk to South Korea forever. They cut off the line just to put pressure on the US and South Korea,” says Mr. Bong.

Time Magazine national security reporter Mark Thompson reports on the blog Military Intelligence that the exercises, known as Key Resolve 2013, are "designed to protect South Korea from an invasion from the North – the same way the Korean War began on June 25, 1950."

The exercises, which will last about 10 days, involve some 3,000 US troops and 10,000 South Korean troops. Mr. Thompson writes that US officials are concerned that Pyongyang will "seize upon" the exercises and sanctions as a "pretext for action."

But US military officials are betting that any North Korean-launched strike would be small, to avoid triggering a massive counter-offensive that could lead to a war that would likely mark the end of the North Korean government.

In 2010, a North Korean artillery barrage killed four South Koreans, and a suspected North Korean torpedo sank the 1,200-ton South Korean corvette ROKS Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. The North purportedly launched both military strikes, and didn’t pay a heavy price for doing so. Its leaders may be betting that they can do it yet again.

But one thing has changed. Despite diplomatic happy talk from [Army Gen. James Thurman, the top US commander in South Korea], the North has renounced the armistice. Legal niceties aside, that means – if South Korea and its US ally are provoked for a third time – they may be less reluctant to fire back. 

Thompson highlights an intelligence assessment from Korean experts Victor Cha and Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warning of an imminent "North Korean provocation." The two experts state that the North has carried out some sort of "military provocation" within weeks of every presidential inauguration in the South since 1992. 

President Park Guen-hye, South Korea's first female president, was inaugurated on Feb. 25. "Not a good prospect at all," they write, according to Thompson.

South Korea has been under pressure to respond more forcefully than it did following the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which resulted in the deaths of four South Koreans, reports the Monitor:

The government has pledged not to repeat that response. Kim Yong-hyun, operational director of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said last week: "If North Korea pushes ahead with provocations that would threaten the lives and safety of our citizens, our military will strongly and sternly punish the provocations' starting point, its supporting forces and corps-level commanding post."  

And Seoul continues to push back on the North, insisting today that Pyongyang cannot legally end the armistice unilaterally, BBC reports.

 "Unilateral abrogation or termination of the armistice agreement is not allowed under its regulations or according to international law," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-Young said.

Seoul would "absolutely keep the armistice agreement as well as strengthen consultation and cooperation with the United States and China, who are also concerned parties of the armistice", he said.

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