North Korea has responded to planned U.S.-South Korean military exercises by threatening a “retaliatory sacred war” with a “powerful nuclear deterrence.” Pyongyang’s belligerent propaganda is intended to show that the regime is not intimidated by the large-scale allied naval and air exercises scheduled to take place next week near the Korean Peninsula. Washington and Seoul announced that the military maneuvers are being taken in response North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean naval ship and will encompass 20 ships and 200 aircraft—a strong signal of the allies’ resolve to deter and defend against Pyongyang’s belligerence.
Pyongyang’s statements are worrisome but do not portend an attack on the exercise participants nor imminent hostilities. North Korea has frequently threatened war against the U.S., South Korea, and Japan; pledged to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”; and to respond “a hundred fold” to any attack. As such, the rhetoric is consistent with previous propaganda themes, though at the higher end of bellicosity.
However, the North Korean rhetorical threats come at a time of heightened tension brought on by Pyongyang’s unprovoked March 26 attack on the Cheonan and greater concern over the stability of the reclusive regime. Although the U.N. Security Council responded weakly to North Korea’s attack, this week the Obama Administration pledged to impose additional, more wide-ranging economic sanctions on Pyongyang’s illicit activities. In the past, North Korea has responded strongly to what it perceived as threats or insults to the regime though often in an asymmetric and delayed manner.
North Korea’s unprovoked attack on a South Korean warship shows that the regime has returned to the high risk strategy of the past. As such, additional North Korean provocative military action cannot be ruled out. Indeed, Kim Jong-il may have already planned a series of incidents, using the international response to the Cheonan attack as justification. Also, in light of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, any North Korean probing of the naval exercises or other military incident runs the risk of miscalculation and escalating beyond what either side intended.
The U.S. and South Korea have announced that they are unwilling to return to nuclear negotiations until North Korea apologizes and makes amends for the Cheonan attack and provide a tangible sign of its willingness to comply with its denuclearization commitments. Obama Administration officials stated that there is no evidence Pyongyang is willing to do so and privately comment that they do not think North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons.
The deteriorating security situation on the Korean Peninsula underscores the need for robust allied defenses. The forthcoming large-scale conventional defense exercises and expansive U.S.-South Korean joint defense statement from senior-level meetings this week are strong first steps.
However, the failure of international diplomacy and U.N. resolutions to halt North Korea’s ongoing pursuit of a missile-deliverable nuclear weapons show the need for a viable missile defense system for the U.S. and its allies. North Korea currently has 600 SCUD missiles that can target South Korea, 300 No Dong missiles that can reach all of Japan, and the Musudan intermediate-range missile that threatens U.S. bases in Okinawa and Guam. Pyongyang also continues to develop the Taepo Dong inter-continental ballistic missile that the U.S. intelligence community estimated in 2001 could threaten all of the continental United States with a nuclear warhead within 10 years.
North Korea’s blatant defiance of U.N. resolutions and norms of international behavior demonstrates the critical necessity for the U.S. and its allies to have robust missile defense systems. Yet, despite the increasing North Korean missile threat, the Obama Administration has reduced funding for several missile defense programs. Washington and Tokyo have deployed an effective, though still limited missile defense system.
The new Democratic Party of Japan-led government in Tokyo has even questioned the utility of missile defense, despite Japan having been overflown several times by North Korean missiles. The conservative Lee Myung-bak government expressed greater receptivity to expanded missile defenses upon its inauguration in 2008, but has yet to upgrade its rudimentary defenses.
It is imperative that the U.S. and its allies take all appropriate steps to prepare for potential new and expanded North Korean military provocations and attacks. James Clapper, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and nominee for Director of National Intelligence, warned recently of the start of a “dangerous new period” in which the North seeks to mount “direct attacks” on the South. He testified that the threat from North Korean military forces “cannot be taken lightly.” That includes North Korea’s expanding missile threat.