How credible is North Korea's threat of 'horrible disaster'?

North Korea went on high alert and said the US should forgo planned military exercises with Japan and South Korea. But it could have a hidden agenda.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Koreans watch a television broadcasting a satellite image of the nuclear facility in North Korea, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.

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 North Korea put its forces on high alert and warned the US of “horrible disaster” if it followed through with a three-nation military exercise that includes a US nuclear-powered ship. Some observers say, however, that the North’s bellicose language could indicate its desire to attract US attention and possibly restart long-stalled six-nation nuclear talks.

The North said relations on the Korean peninsula were “getting strained again,” and told the US that the closer the military exercises came, “the more unpredictable disasters their actions will cause," according to a military statement.

"The US should bear in mind that the Korean people and army are highly alert to promptly and confidently cope with and foil blatant provocations of any hostile forces in the world with its own powerful military muscle,” the military statement read.

The US and South Korea have repeatedly demanded that Pyongyang show a commitment to stopping its nuclear program before recommencing six-nation talks between China, Russia, Japan, the US, and North and South Korea.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations:

In early 2012, under new leader Kim Jong-un, the isolated nation announced it would suspend nuclear tests and allow international inspectors to monitor the moratorium in exchange for food aid from the United States. But a long-range missile launch in late 2012 and another test in early 2013 that defied UN resolutions prompted Russia to prod Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

Adding to tensions on the Korean peninsula, last week Pyongyang restarted its nuclear reactor, which has been dormant since 2007, reports Fox News.

"North Korea must realize that provocative remarks would deepen its isolation from the international community," South Korea's unification ministry said in a statement today.

Joint military exercises between the US, Japan, and South Korea happen regularly and were slated to begin today and last for three days. However, the drills have been delayed due to weather. The exercises are “designed to strengthen coordination and improve readiness to respond to situations such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” a US defense official told Agence France-Presse. The US has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, reports Reuters.

According to AFP, the emergency order issued by North Korea did not sound as serious as past warnings from the notoriously isolated and impoverished nation.

“The North is simply trying to draw attention from the outside world to the fact that it is closely watching the drill," Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies told the AFP.

"It also aims to alert its people to security threats from the United States, South Korea and Japan and pave the way for shifting blame for any military tension on the peninsula to the three,” Mr. Yang said.

According to Al Jazeera:

In March, the North declared it was no longer bound by the armistice that ended fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War signed with the United States and China, threatening to use nuclear weapons to attack US and South Korean territories.

It is believed to have enough fissile material to build up to 10 nuclear bombs, but most intelligence analysis says it has yet to master the technology to deploy such weapons.

Reuters reports that North Korea has a “large but ageing conventional military” which is “considered unfit to fight an extended modern battle,” although it did stage a surprise attack on the South in 2010, killing 50 people.

Beyond North Korea’s threats to foreign countries and perceived enemies, its treatment of its own population has long been a concern, though on that some argue has gotten far too little concerted scrutiny. In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal this week, former CIA chief for Korea analysis Bruce Klinger and human rights lawyer Jared Genser wrote that a UN commission’s “shocking” findings of human rights abuses in North Korea have long been a problem that needs more attention.

North Korea's human-rights record is overshadowed by its nuclear and missile programs, defiance of U.N. resolutions, vitriolic threats and periodic military attacks on South Korea. These are serious security threats to Asia and the United States.

But it's past time for the world to remain silent about Pyongyang's treatment of its own citizens. There should be widespread international outrage against the horrors systemically perpetuated on the North Korean people by their leaders. North Korea's killing fields must disappear.

The U.N. created its Commission of Inquiry because it realized how ineffectual it is simply to express "very serious concern" about human rights in North Korea. In February, U.N. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman identified nine categories in which North Korea might be committing crimes against humanity.

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