As prospect of North Korea missile launch rises, some question US response to threats

The US is responding to North Korea's bombast as if Pyongyang is capable of making good on its recent threats. Tensions have risen against the backdrop of annual US-South Korean military drills.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
US Army Patriot missile air defense artillery batteries are seen at US Osan air base in Osan, south of Seoul, South Korea, Friday. North Korea has placed two of its intermediate range missiles on mobile launchers and hidden them on the east coast of the country in a move that could threaten Japan or US Pacific bases, South Korean media reported on Friday.
Lim Byong-sik/Yonhap/Reuters
A South Korean soldier walks between barricades on the Grand Unification Bridge, which leads to the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea in Paju, north of Seoul, Friday.

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After weeks of panicked coverage – phrases such as "tensions ratcheting up," "escalations," "heated rhetoric," "miscalculations" have become ubiquitous in relation to North Korea – some US observers are questioning whether ongoing military drills with South Korea are fueling a crisis substantiated on guesswork.

Media reports and expert commentary have been rife with disclaimers that North Korea is likely some years away from having the technological capability to carry out the nuclear attack that it said earlier this week it had authorized. They also insist that leader Kim Jong-un understands that there is no way the North could win a war with South Korea and the US, and that his priority is maintaing power.

Still, US officials may have little choice but to respond as if Pyongyang is capable of acting on its threats. Today, CNN reports that North Korea appears to be moving missile and launch equipment to a spot on its east coast, and could be planning a "test launch" of a missile with a 2,500-mile range.

Intercepted communications "show that Pyongyang might be planning to launch a mobile ballistic missile in the coming days or weeks," according to Department of Defense officials.

This week, the US announced it would speed up the deployment of a missile-defense system to its base in Guam. It also moved a warship and "radar platform" in the region closer to the North Korean coast and sent stealth fighter jets to its base in South Korea to add them to the mix in annual US-South Korea training exercises, according to a recap from CNN

Although the military exercises are routine, they have always raised North Korea's ire – and this year's drills seemed to have more heft than years past, with the addition of B-2 stealth bombers that dropped inert bombs over South Korea, Time notes. 

Now, according to CNN, some in the US are beginning to ask if US reactions to North Korea's threats have exacerbated the situation.

"We are trying to turn the volume down," a Defense Department official told CNN. "We accused the North Koreans of amping things up, now we are worried we did the same thing," one Defense Department official said.

Defending the US position

But State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland defended US actions, saying "it was the ratcheting of tensions from North Korea that led to the U.S. shoring up its defense posture."

Even though this sort of bombast from Pyongyang has become the norm over the last few decades, this time is different. "The music is the same, but is much louder," Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations told the Monitor. 

So what has changed? North Korean leaders are threatening the US with nuclear weapons – "unheard of a few years ago" – and they have abandoned the North-South hotlines that were supposed to foster reconciliation, according to the Monitor. And the new South Korean leader, Park Geun-hye, is reacting more firmly to Pyongyang's threats than her predecessor. 

Time Magazine attempts to tamp down concerns, writing that Kim Jong-un isn't crazy and has no desire to bring an end to his regime – the almost certain outcome if he does start a war with South Korea or the US. 

It seems paradoxical to say it, given Pyongyang’s almost daily exercises in escalation, but the North Korean leadership almost certainly does not want to go to war. Not that it would flinch at a massive loss of life if it meant propping up the regime. … The problem is that a full-scale conflict would almost certainly mean the destruction of the North Korean state and the likelihood of a violent end for its young leader, Kim Jong-un

Like his father before him, Kim is focused on surviving. While the isolated North Korean leadership is sometimes seen as erratic and crazy – a case not helped by Kim’s partying with Dennis Rodman or publishing photos of a map showing strike plans for the continental US – it remains committed to staying in power. It has survived for half a century by avoiding any fights that it can’t win or at least, as with the Korean War, draw to a bloody stalemate. For all its goading, North Korea is unlikely to want to start a doomed conflict now. 

Bloomberg View columnist William Pesek makes a similar case, arguing that military capabilities are not what will determine how this ends – Kim Jong-un's desire for power is.

Rather than obsess over his nuclear capabilities, the firepower of his adjectives or the amount of foam at his mouth, let’s consider what Kim is up to. After barely a year running the family business, the Kim Dynasty, the Swiss-educated 30-ish dictator still has a bunch of trigger-happy generals looking over his shoulder. He’s showing them he’s every bit as macho as his dad, the now-deceased Kim Jong Il, if not more.

It is always possible that Kim has suicidal tendencies. But what has the Kim Dynasty, through three generations, spent every waking moment doing? Staying in power and keeping the world out. The idea that Kim and his cronies see any upside to squeezing off a missile, knowing it would spell the end of North Korea, is the stuff of Tom Clancy novels, not realpolitik. 

And one last reality check from David Kang, co-author of "Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies," in Bloomberg Businessweek:

North Korea can destroy Seoul tomorrow if it chooses, so that’s a real threat. Deterrence has held for 60 years because both sides realize the costs of a real war: Seoul would be destroyed, and North Korea would cease to exist. For all the hype about the last few months of chest-thumping and muscle-flexing, it’s important to remember two things: First, if you read the North Korean statements in full, they are all saying “IF the U.S./ROK attack us first, we will fight back,” (not “we will attack you first,” which is often how they are interpreted), and second, we believe them. That’s why there are no preemptive strikes on North Korea.

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