US, South Korea preparing for North provocation in near future
SEOUL — Officials are preparing for the possibility that North Korea will carry out some kind of provocation next week in conjunction with the birthday of the country’s founder.
Missiles have been put in place on North Korea’s east coast, and a second tunnel at the site where a nuclear test was carried out in February remains unused. Foreign diplomats have been warned by Pyongyang that it can’t guarantee their safety after Wednesday.
That has led to speculation that another provocation by the belligerent rogue state is likely sooner rather than later.
South Korea’s defense minister said Thursday that North Korea had moved a missile with “considerable range” to its east coast, possibly to conduct a test launch, according to an Associated Press report. The minister’s description suggests that the missile could be the Musudan missile, capable of striking American bases in Guam with its estimated range of up to 2,500 miles.
Defense officials also have said the North completed preparations for a nuclear test at two underground tunnels. The North used one tunnel for its latest nuclear test Feb. 12, but the second tunnel remains unused, AP said. South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told a parliamentary committee Monday that “there is such an indication” of nuclear test preparations at Pyongyang’s site in the country’s northeast, although he quickly backtracked from those statements later in the day.
Meanwhile, Korean media outlets were reporting Monday night that North Korea plans to pull its workers out of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, thus temporarily shutting down the last remaining symbol of inter-Korea cooperation.
Close to 1,000 South Koreans work alongside 53,000 North Koreans at 123 South-owned factories and businesses in the complex, located just north of the Demilitarized Zone.
A high-ranking North Korean Kaesong official was quoted by the North’s Korean Central News Agency as blaming the U.S. and South Korea for the move, adding that the permanent closure of the facility is under consideration and its future will depend on the future actions of the allied countries.
On Wednesday, North Korea barred South Korean workers from crossing the border to commute into the park along with delivery trucks, but South Koreans at the park were allowed to return home at any time. Businesses there continued to operate thanks to the North Koreans still reporting to work and the South Koreans who stayed at the park, living between shifts at dormitory-like housing facilities. In recent days, more than a dozen of the businesses reportedly ceased operations as they ran short of supplies and employees due to the border restrictions.
U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman who just wrapped up a visit to Afghanistan, was asked in an Associated Press interview whether he foresees North Korea taking military action soon.
“No, but I can’t take the chance that it won’t,” he said Sunday, explaining why the Pentagon has strengthened missile defenses and made other decisions to combat the potential threat.
Dempsey told the AP that the U.S. has been preparing for further provocations or action, “considering the risk that they may choose to do something” on one of two nationally important anniversaries in April — the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and the creation of the North Korean army.
U.S. Gen. James Thurman, commander of the 28,000 American troops in South Korea, will stay in Seoul as “a prudent measure” rather than travel to Washington to appear this week before congressional committees, Army Col. Amy Hannah said in an email Sunday to the AP.
The U.S. has responded to the latest series of North Korean threats with uncharacteristically high-profile shows of force during the annual Foal Eagle joint exercise with South Korea, which runs through the end of April. The responses have involved B-52 bombers, F-22 fighters, a nuclear attack sub and a pair of B-2 stealth bombers flown in from the U.S. for a nonstop, round-trip practice mission. U.S. missile defense systems have been beefed up.
And Seoul officials — who were roundly criticized for their rather timid responses to North Korean attacks in 2010 on a border island and a warship that left 50 South Koreans dead — have repeatedly warned in recent weeks that any provocation by Pyongyang, even a small-scale attack, will be met with force.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that the U.S. and South Korean will respond in a like manner in the event of an assault. The so-called Counter-Provocation Plan calls for an “immediate but proportional” response that would hit the source of any North Korean attack with similar weapons, the Times reported.
Under the plan, South Korea and the U.S. would “retaliate quickly with a barrage of artillery of similar intensity,” the newspaper said. Last month, the U.S. and South Korea signed contingency plans that gives South Korea both U.S. support and the lead in responding to future North Korea provocations.
Amid concerns that North Korea could be preparing to launch on if its new missiles, Pentagon officials told the New York Times that it could calculate the missile’s trajectory within seconds and attempt to to shoot it down if threatened South Korea, Japan or Guam, an American territory. However, if the missile was headed for the open sea, even if flew over Japan in the process, military action would not be taken, the Times reported.
In an effort to ease the minds of its people, South Korea has even put out a video showing how relatively simple it would be to counter any attack from North Korea, not long after Pyongyang posted a video that claimed it could invade and take control of the South in just three days. The South Korean video, which is being shown on screens in Seoul subway cars and stations, uses cartoon depictions to show how the South can anticipate North Korea’s military maneuvers, thanks to satellites and surveillance flights.
“Relax,” a narrator says, adding that the South won’t be taken by surprise and is fully prepared to respond to any North Korean provocation, thanks to the ability to track anything significant going on north of the Demilitarized Zone and the “nuclear umbrella” the U.S.–South Korean alliance provides.
“We are seeking international defense cooperation,” the video says. “We will maintain stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.”
The video eventually shows North soldiers crying as they are surrounded by barbed wire and South Korean guards.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, which put out the video, said it was aimed at easing any public concern over the escalating tensions between the two Koreas, not to serve as a response to North Korea’s video predicting a three-day blitz of the South.
“In sharp difference to the past, we are actively and immediately explaining things to people, telling them they don’t have to worry … showing them that we have enough fighting power and reaction capabilities to ease people’s minds,” he said.
“Our intention in creating it was not only to let people know our country is secure, but also that the Ministry of National Defense and our national armed forces are committed to their duties, come hell or high water, in this situation as long as North Korea’s threats persist,” the spokesman said.
The growing tensions have caused concern across the world and, in particular, around Asia.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has issued an order to shoot down any North Korean missile or its debris that could fall into Japanese territory.
Even China — North Korea’s closest ally — has been critical of the recent actions of the cloistered country. In an obvious reference to the North, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech Sunday, “No one should be allowed to throw a region, and even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gain.”