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Posted at 7:50 PM ET, 05/26/2010

North Korea analysts predict more ‘provocations’

By Jeff Stein

Leading U.S. experts on northeast Asia say they expect North Korea to ratchet tensions even higher in the coming days and weeks, but stop short of rocket attacks on Seoul or an outright invasion of the south.

“I think more provocations could be coming,” Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr., a professor of international relations at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, said in an interview. “The next ones will be very different though, because Pyongyang would like to catch us ‘off-guard’.”

Bechtol, a former senior analyst for Northeast Asia on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw a range of possibilities for North Korea to keep nerves jangling in the region.

“I see more tension at the Kaesong Industrial Complex,” a collaborative economic venture with Pyongyang in North Korea, “perhaps some saber rattling over the loudspeaker broadcasts that the South will be starting up again soon, possible ballistic missile tests, and yes, perhaps even another nuclear test.”

“I do not see an artillery barrage from the DMZ coming - unless the North Koreans really want to start another war, which I doubt,” Bechtol added.

It’s easy to dismiss North Korean saber-rattling as business as usual from Pyongyang, said Bruce Klingner, chief of the CIA’s Korea Branch in the 1990s. But he also sees an increasing willingness by North Korea to engage in high-risk behavior.

“Analysts who have followed North Korea for some time tend to become jaded about North Korean threats of war since they occur so frequently,” Klingner said. “For example, during last year’s provocations, Pyongyang threatened war against the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, as well as threatening the safety of civilian airliners. The war threats tend to be more of a propaganda rhetorical device than an indicator of actual military hostilities.”

“That said,” added Klingner, now senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Northeast Asia Studies Center, “North Korea’s decision to sink a South Korean naval vessels reflects a willingness to engage in extremely high-risk behavior.

“Whether that decision is due to a growing desperation arising from the impact of UN sanctions on its economy or an increased confidence from its growing nuclear weapons capability remains unknown.”

“In any case,” he added, “it is likely that North Korea will engage in additional provocations this year, either in response to international condemnation and punishment, or because Pyongyang already has a pre-planned series of incidents, though short of a frontal attack or all-out war.”

Everyone needs to take a deep breath, said Bruce Cumings, a longtime scholar on Korea and Japan who chairs the Department of History at the University of Chicago.

“I think this is being blown way out of proportion,” Cumings said. “In 1999 there was a bigger incident in the same place where 30 North Koreans died and 70 were wounded, and the North Koreans chose not to respond --probably because Kim Dae Jung [who pursued reconciliation with the communists] was president, and they were making plans for the June 2000 summit.”

The sinking of a South Korea frigate on March 26, which is being blamed on a North Korean submarine, “was probably related to their anger over the [current] South Korean president going back on 10 years of reconciliation,” Cumings said, as well as the U.S.-South Korean Foal Eagle naval exercise just off its shores.

“Of course it is reprehensible that they killed 46 sailors, but the boat was in disputed waters,” Cumings said, where clashes have been frequent.

In three previous engagements, "North Korea's aging naval ships have taken a pounding from South Korea's far more modern and better-armed vessels," The Washington Post's Blaine Harden and June Lee reported after the March incident.

Meanwhile, South Korea is building “a blue water navy that is capable of conducting operations beyond its immediate coast,” says Terence J. Roehrig, who teaches national security decision-making at the Naval War College. Previous North Korean submarine incursions, in 1996 and 1998 fueled Seoul’s drive to modernize its own submarine fleet, he said.

Given North Korea’s record of military surpises, American satellites and other high-tech gear have involved the United States ever more deeply in South Korea’s defense, says Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation.

“The countermeasures are striking because they now involve the U.S. to a much greater degree in defending a line that had traditionally been left to South Korea to defend, despite over a decade of sporadic inter-Korean clashes,” he said.

“Anti-sub exercises coming up as early as next month send a message,” Snyder added. “It will be interesting to see how North Korea responds to this.”

Only one thing is certain: North Korea won’t be quiet.

By Jeff Stein  | May 26, 2010; 7:50 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Military  | Tags:  Asia Foundation, Bruce Cumings, Bruce E. Bechtol, Bruce Klingner, Heritage Foundation, Jr., Marine Corps University, Naval War College, Scott Snyder, Terence J. Roehrig, University of Chicago History Department  
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Next: Analysts question Korea torpedo incident


One other thing is for certain: North Korea won't fire a torpedo at an American vessel.

North Korea (for all of its short comings; flaccid economy and backward, state controlled society) is currently in the driver's seat when it comes to tit-for-tat exchanges with their neighbor to the south.

Condemnation by the ROK, the U.S. and the U.N. lack any true significance. South Korea has no tactical advantage engaging the DPRK in combat: Risk losing Seoul in a 21st century version of Dresden via artillery barrage? Not likely.

The ROK Making more noise than necessary and as a result disturbing the lucrative trade position they have with China? Doubtful.

The U.S. engaging in yet another war? Point blank. No.

North Korea has no reason to behave. Hmmm...Maybe they would fire at an American vessel.

Posted by: wakeup31 | May 28, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

The Cheonan was sunk in a friendly fire accident, not by a No. Korean torpedo. Operation Foal Eagle was a joint US-So. Korean anti-sub warfare exercise conducted near a US naval base in the Yellow Sea. It included US diving ships which probably laid bottom or rising mines. They work by using acoustic and magnetic readings to locate a target and then release the mines. When the Cheonan was detected a mine was released towards the targeet (probably accidentally) and rose to hit the Cheonan keel splitting it in two. If a torpedo hit the vessel it would have caused it to tilt. The propeller shaft travelling at 50-60 mph and offered by the So. Koreans as "proof" would have been shattered and the struts crumbled instead of being intact. The US is slupporting So.Korea because it is involved in the sinking. We have already been drawn into the Iraq war due to ies about WMD. Now the ground is being set for war with No. Korea because of lies about the Cheonan sinking. Wake up America.

Posted by: bgskip | May 31, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I have not previously submitted any comments to the WP. This is my first so to reject it because of "too many previous comments" is a travesty. Apparently you are not interested in the truth.
The joint anti-sub warfare US-So. Korean Foal Eagle exercise near a US naval base in the Yellow Sea was probably responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan. The exercise included US diving ships laying bottom or rising mines. They work by detecting a target via acoustic and magnetic signals and then releasing a mine. The Cheonan was detected and a mine was released (probably acccidentally) splitting the keel in two. If a torpedo had struck the hull the vessel would have tilted instead and a propeller fired at 60 mph would have been shattered. The So. Koreans produced an intact propeller as "proof". The Cheonan became a victim of "friendly fire". The US was drawn into war against Iraq because of lies over WMDs. Now new lies about the Cheonan are drawing us into was against So. Korea.

Posted by: bgskip | May 31, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

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