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Analysis: North Korean threat may be more bark than bite

By Jean H. Lee

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 10:48 a.m. HST, Mar 29, 2013

SEOUL >> Across North Korea, soldiers are gearing up for battle and shrouding their jeeps and vans with camouflage netting. Newly painted signboards and posters call for "death to the U.S. imperialists" and urge the people to fight with "arms, not words."

But even as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is issuing midnight battle cries to his generals to ready their rockets, he and his million-man army know full well that a successful missile strike on U.S. targets would be suicide for the outnumbered, out-powered North Korean regime.

Despite the hastening drumbeat of warfare, none of the key players in the region wants or expects another Korean War — not even the North Koreans.

But by seemingly bringing the region to the very brink of conflict with threats and provocations, Pyongyang is aiming to draw attention to the tenuousness of the armistice designed to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula, a truce North Korea recently announced it would no longer honor as it warned that war could break out at any time.

It's all part of a grand master plan to force Washington to the negotiating table, pressure the new president in Seoul to change policy on North Korea, and build unity at home — without triggering a full-blown war if all goes well.

In July, it will be 60 years since North Korea and China signed an armistice with the U.S. and the United Nations to bring an end to three years of brutal, bloody Cold War fighting that cost millions of lives. The designated "Demilitarized Zone" has evolved into the most heavily guarded border in the world.

It was never intended to be a permanent border. But six decades later, North and South remain divided, with Pyongyang feeling abandoned by the South Koreans in the quest for reunification and threatened by the Americans.

In that time, South Korea has blossomed from a poor, agrarian nation of peasants into the world's 15th largest economy while North Korea is struggling to find a way out of a Cold War chasm that has left it with a per capita income on par with sub-Saharan Africa.

The Chinese troops who fought alongside the North Koreans have long since left. But 28,500 American troops are still stationed in South Korea and 50,000 more are in nearby Japan. For weeks, the U.S. and South Korea have been showing off their military might with a series of joint exercises that Pyongyang sees a rehearsal for invasion.

On Thursday, the U.S. military confirmed that those drills included two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers that can unload the U.S. Air Force's largest conventional bomb — a 30,000-pound super bunker buster — powerful enough to destroy North Korea's web of underground military tunnels.

It was a provocative play by Washington, a flexing of military muscle perhaps aimed not only at Pyongyang but at Beijing as well.

In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un reacted swiftly, calling an emergency meeting of army generals and ordering them to be prepared to strike if the U.S. provocations continue. A photo distributed by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency showed Kim in a military operations room with maps detailing a "strike plan" behind him in a very public show of supposedly sensitive military strategy.

North Korea cites the U.S. military threat as a key reason behind its need to build nuclear weapons, and has poured a huge chunk of its small national budget into defense, science and technology. In December, scientists launched a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket using technology that could easily be converted for missiles; in February, they tested an underground nuclear device as part of a mission to build a bomb they can load on a missile capable of reaching the U.S.

However, what North Korea really wants is legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S. — and a peace treaty. Pyongyang wants U.S. troops off Korean soil, and the bombs and rockets are more of an expensive, dangerous safety blanket than real firepower. They are the only real playing card North Korea has left, and the bait they hope will bring the Americans to the negotiating table.

Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, isn't convinced North Korea is capable of attacking Guam, Hawaii or the U.S. mainland. He says Pyongyang hasn't successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile.

But its medium-range Rodong missiles, with a range of about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers), are "operational and credible" and could reach U.S. bases in Japan, he says.

More likely than such a strike, however, is a smaller-scale incident, perhaps off the Koreas' western coast, that would stop short of provoking the Americans to unleash their considerable firepower. For years, the waters off the west coast have been a battleground for naval skirmishes between the two Koreas because the North has never recognized the maritime border drawn unilaterally by the U.N.

As threatening as Kim's call to arms may sound, its main target audience may be the masses at home in North Korea.

For months, the masterminds of North Korean propaganda have pinpointed this year's milestone Korean War anniversary as a prime time to play up Kim's military credibility as well as to push for a peace treaty. By creating the impression that a U.S. attack is imminent, the regime can foster a sense of national unity and encourage the people to rally around their new leader.

Inside Pyongyang, much of the military rhetoric feels like theatrics. It's not unusual to see people toting rifles in North Korea, where soldiers and checkpoints are a fixture in the heavily militarized society. But more often than not in downtown Pyongyang, the rifle stashed in a rucksack is a prop and the "soldier" is a dancer, one of the many performers rehearsing for a Korean War-themed extravaganza set to debut later this year.

More than 100,000 soldiers, students and ordinary workers were summoned Friday to Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang to pump their fists in support of North Korea's commander in chief. But elsewhere, it was business as usual at restaurants and shops, and farms and factories, where the workers have heard it all before.

"Tensions rise almost every year around the time the U.S.-South Korean drills take place, but as soon as those drills end, things go back to normal and people put those tensions behind them quite quickly," said Sung Hyun-sang, the South Korean president of a clothing maker operating in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. "I think and hope that this time won't be different."

And in a telling sign that even the North Koreans don't expect war, the national airline, Air Koryo, is adding flights to its spring lineup and preparing to host the scores of tourists they expect to flock to Pyongyang despite the threats issuing forth from the Supreme Command.

War or no war, it seems Pyongyang remains open for business.


Lee is chief of AP's bureaus in Pyongyang, North Korea, and Seoul, South Korea.

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false wrote:
The keiki are talking about this threat and worrying. This is not to be taken lightly. A threat is a threat and the bullying is real. We sit here denying the potential for a disaster. The kids are more aware than we are.
on March 29,2013 | 04:56AM
allie wrote:
agree...the bullies may be strutting but real lives are at stake.
on March 29,2013 | 06:19AM
2disgusted2 wrote:
This comment has been deleted.
on March 29,2013 | 10:19AM
false wrote:
What are you talking about? You know too much about something. Takes one to know one?
on March 29,2013 | 02:40PM
8082062424 wrote:
crazy people do crazy things. he sort of like the boy who called wolf he keep threaten . who to say he will not do it. we should have some concern. khon had a list of thing we should do if it should happen. it will take all of a 1/2 hour to reach us
on March 29,2013 | 05:09PM
bsdetection wrote:
Give credit where it's due: North Korea has nukes because George Bush pulled inspectors out of North Korea, puffed up his chest, called them the Axis of Evil, and cut off talks as part of his childish policy of not doing anything Clinton did, regardless of the fact that Clinton's policy might have been working.
on March 29,2013 | 05:03AM
allie wrote:
Bush was so anti-American in his ideas and results. Our very worst president ever.
on March 29,2013 | 06:20AM
livinginhawaii wrote:
I'd say our worst president ever was a toss up between John Tyler (defender of slavery) and Warren Harding (poker player who plundered the US treasury). These guys made Nixon look good.
on March 29,2013 | 06:53AM
9ronboz wrote:
It's Carter
on March 29,2013 | 07:29AM
pcman wrote:
After four years, Carter left us with double digit inflation, 15 percent interest on home loans, and a military that practiced shooting by saying, "bang, bang, bang," becuase he stopped buying ammo. Lines to buy gasoline were miles long. Fun, huh? Under Obama, gasoline prices has doubled, savings interest is less than half percent, unemployment is over 7 percent (much moreif you consider jobs lost and people who have stopped looking for jobs), 50 percent of the people under welfare, 47 percent of the people don't pay federal income tax, largest furlough of defense civilians ever, largest cutbacks of future deferse capability investments, and more. Largest defecit spending, debt and loans from overseas. We are in for a lot of pain after Obama retires.
on March 29,2013 | 09:46AM
saveparadise wrote:
I remember one president telling a bold faced lie in front of the cameras. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman".
on March 29,2013 | 09:54AM
hanalei395 wrote:
In his mind, he didn't lie. He meant the usual sexual relations.
on March 29,2013 | 10:28AM
saywhatyouthink wrote:
And he was the best President we've had in a hundred years. We could use him again right about now.
on March 29,2013 | 02:29PM
daniwitz13 wrote:
It is Obama that plunged the Nation into Homosexuality. By far. Pity.
on March 29,2013 | 11:06AM
thos wrote:
Our worst president was another smooth talking pretty boy from the Senate whose rich bootlegger daddy bought him a razor thin "victory" in 1960 who then blundered from one foreign policy debacle to another until he came within a whisker of getting us all fried in a full on arsenal exchange with the Soviets not even two years into his sorry excuse for a presidency. To deflect public attention from his failures in Cuba (twice) Berlin Laos and Tibet, he ignited a "splendid little war" in Vietnam that cost us almost 60 thousand American lives and millions of lives in what was once Indochina.
on March 29,2013 | 08:45AM
hanalei395 wrote:
Eisenhower got the U.S. involved in Vietnam, when he sabotaged the 1954 Geneva Agreements. The Agreements stated that there will be no foreign troops in Vietnam after the French. Eisenhower brought in troops and called them "advisors". He also prevented the 1956 elections, as prescribed in the Agreements, because he knew that Ho Chi Mihn would win, and not the U.S. installed puppet, Ngo Dihn Diem. This gave birth to the National Liberation Front ("Viet Cong"), and the Vietnam war was on. Or, as the Vietnamese called it ...The American War.
on March 29,2013 | 09:23AM
pcman wrote:
Actually North Korea started its development of nukes under the Clinton administration. North Korea kicked out the UN inspectors during the Bush administration. Obama has not pushed for any inspections by the UN. I don't think any of the presidents are at fault for North Korea development of its nuke program. It's their own desire to have nukes. Like all of their other military capabilities, they will try to use it to bully South Korea or Japan into giving them economic aid. This tactic has worked in the past. The current Chinese, South Korean and Japanese leaership may not fall for the tactic, though. Kim Jong Un may commit suicide by nuclear threats.
on March 29,2013 | 09:12AM
lee1957 wrote:
Pulled our inspectors out of North Korea? What inspectors?
on March 29,2013 | 11:42AM
hanalei395 wrote:
The N. Korean bottom line propaganda: The U.S. is still in S. Korea. With the recent joint U.S./S. Korean military drills, and the U.S. calling them one of the "Axis of Evil", (like the attack and invasion of Iraq), the U.S. is ready to strike. (All this blustering is their "warning" not to do it).
on March 29,2013 | 05:23AM
stingray65 wrote:
hanalei, Would you rather want them to Invade U.S. Of A? And what would you do? As well as allie, hide under your beds? Are you fighting for rthe freedom of U. S. Citizens or collaborate with the enemies? Like what the papers say, North Korean, all bark no bites. That bombers are very willing to do a real life bombing!! Blanket cover the whole North Korea! end of the story!!
on March 29,2013 | 08:19AM
hanalei395 wrote:
"Blanket cover"? ..... new words for "Nuke 'em". (End of story).
on March 29,2013 | 08:25AM
primo1 wrote:
I believe the correct term would be "carpet bombing", i.e. "Operation Linebacker II" conducted during the Vietnam war. Problem with that type of campaign is the volume of unexploded ordnance left behind, which would result in many civilian casualties for years to come.
on March 29,2013 | 12:02PM
cojef wrote:
Scare tactics being espoused on a school playground by a bully, while the principal with switch in his hand watches from his office window, a scenario currently being played out on the Korean Peninsula. If the bully acts, the principal reacts and WWIII results. Could be?
on March 29,2013 | 06:53AM
pakeheat wrote:
Nothing important, move along
on March 29,2013 | 07:29AM
jussayin wrote:
US/SK is showing their military might which caused NK to do the same. Granted that NK is no match for US. But I don't think we want another war where we spend more money and more importantly lose lives. Need US/SK to talk with NK instead of showing I have a bigger club to hit you with.
on March 29,2013 | 07:36AM
pcman wrote:
IRT jussayin, I don't think young Kim knew what kind of club we have. It can reach from the US to Korea in one feld sweep. He will probably keep his bullying to South Korea and Japan from now on, since they don't have nukes. By the way, young Kim's bullying would cause South Korea and Japan to want their own nukes, if the US did not show it is capable of responding to any KN attack on the South. "jussayin," as well.
on March 29,2013 | 09:53AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
The problem with crazies is that when you back them into a corner they get desperate and do stupid things. There are many problems the fat boy can cause, not just traditional military attacks. Smuggled biologicals, for example. Got to be careful when nut cases start spouting off.
on March 29,2013 | 07:44AM
hanalei395 wrote:
Like spouting off........"Axis of Evil".
on March 29,2013 | 07:52AM
sailfish1 wrote:
The U.S. better start taking this situation seriously. Nobody truly knows how desperate North Korea is. Remember that they have a million man army and it would be easy for them to invade Seoul and destroy that city. They can also easily drop rockets on Tokyo. What is the U.S. going to do? - Nuke the North? Or, maybe the U.S. can carpet bomb the North like they did during the Korean war and killed millions of civilians. Either would be the biggest criminal act of all. Any war there is going to wreak havoc on Asia and will be another war that the U.S. lost. China and Russia are just watching to see if the U.S. is going to destroy itself over this.
on March 29,2013 | 07:49AM
stingray65 wrote:
Sailfish: That bomber flew from mainland, was a serious demonstration!! All those dummy bombs hit the bullsyeye in South Korea. Civilans got killed were collateral damage! They supported thier government. Therefore, they go down with them as well. My question is, American citizen will do the same thing again like they did in Vietnam war? Spit on the faces of military members that protect their Freedom? What would you do?
on March 29,2013 | 08:27AM
hanalei395 wrote:
To stingray: Vietnam war? ...Freedom?...... The ONLY way you can put that together: ...is after almost a hundred years of occupation, on April 30, 1975 ....Vietnam was finally FREE of ALL foreign invaders and occupiers.
on March 29,2013 | 04:45PM
DDOrange wrote:
Did anyone read the article? It says "As threatening as Kim's call to arms may sound, its main target audience may be the masses at home in North Korea." It is propaganda, the NK leader is trying to instill fear in all North Koreans that a US attack is imminent.
on March 29,2013 | 08:32AM
thos wrote:
On the other hand it may be intended for both domestic and FOREIGN audiences. If so the new DPRK leader may decide that action talks and BS walks. If so, Katie bar the door.
on March 29,2013 | 08:49AM
primo1 wrote:
All of the above...
on March 29,2013 | 10:52AM
pcman wrote:
The average North Korean does not have access to television. So why is the propaganda televised for worldwide consumtion? They want to test the will and intentions of the West and South Korea's new emale president.
on March 30,2013 | 09:06AM
Ronin006 wrote:
North Korea seems to be working on a sequel to “The Mouse That Roared.”
on March 29,2013 | 08:34AM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
This is the mouse that sent 200 artillery shell into Yeonpyeong island in 2010, and put a torpedo in the South Korean warship Cheonan killing 46 sailors and sending her to the bottom. Quite a mouse I would say..
on March 29,2013 | 11:28AM
Ronin006 wrote:
North Korea has successfully test-fired one long-range missile. One. Do you really believe that gives North Korea the capability of hitting US bases on Guam, in Hawaii or on the mainland as they are saying? Yes, they have done some short range stuff as you noted, but it will be years if ever, before North Korea develops the capability to do anything more.
on March 29,2013 | 01:34PM
hanalei395 wrote:
And the S. Koreans didn't retaliate... because...without the U.S.. the S. Koreans don't stand a chance fighting the N. Koreans ...alone.
on March 29,2013 | 05:28PM
false wrote:
You can't take your safety for granted. This could turn on a dime.
on March 29,2013 | 08:58AM
BO0o07 wrote:
N. Korea may fire the first shot and do a lot of damage the first few hours but in the end, Kim Jung Un will no longer be in control of N. Korea. Kim Jun Un like his father and grandfather make threats to try and gain concessions from us. We should be slowly tightening the screws instead of compromising or giving in to their demands. Yes, we have to be diligent and be prepared to wage war but we have to negotiate from strength and not as equals
on March 29,2013 | 09:00AM
primo1 wrote:
Agreed. If KJU ultimately proves foolish enough to pull the trigger, our reprisal would be devastating. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps it's the only way Korea will ever be unified.
on March 29,2013 | 11:01AM
saveparadise wrote:
The old problem child wants attention routine.....
on March 29,2013 | 09:52AM
BO0o07 wrote:
Right on....
on March 29,2013 | 10:22AM
tiki886 wrote:
It's Dennis Rodman's fault. Dennis, what the heck did you say to the Kimster?!
on March 29,2013 | 09:56AM
pakeheat wrote:
He told him, your kim chee is bad
on March 29,2013 | 10:01AM
Bumby wrote:
Very little to do with presidents. The power and money behind the scenes is what pulls the strings of our leaders when it comes to world politics and money. The wars and conflicts will always be part of it with U.S. playing a major role until such time another country comes and takes its place or the powers behind it sees fit to change that.
on March 29,2013 | 10:16AM
ready2go wrote:
These threats should never be taken lightly. Even if Hawaii appears to be far away enough, If they attack South Korea, Hawaii military forces will be again be very involved, directly and indirectly. North Korea has nothing to lose so be alert! Let's hope not during Pres Obama's annual visit to Hawaii or ever at all.
on March 29,2013 | 10:57AM
Anonymous wrote:
How can a country of millions of starving people have faith in such a fat leader?
on March 29,2013 | 12:44PM
loquaciousone wrote:
What the north Koreans were doing was discussing why their kimchee was turning sour so quick.
on March 29,2013 | 01:40PM
bakatade wrote:
"All Bark no Bite" he just needs a Scooby snack. You are only hearing his stomach growling.
on March 29,2013 | 02:22PM
engineersoldier wrote:
NK is the most pathetic country and people of this world.
on March 29,2013 | 02:22PM
saywhatyouthink wrote:
Who would want to visit North Korea?? I wouldn't go there if you pay me.
on March 29,2013 | 02:26PM
entrkn wrote:
I'm pretty sure that when a nut with a gun says he's going to shoot you, you should shoot him first...
on March 29,2013 | 04:15PM
false wrote:
Don't look up dear leader. That's not a mosquito following you, it's a drone.
on March 29,2013 | 04:53PM
hanalei395 wrote:
If that happens, the Korean war continues..... right into S. Korea..... And the S. Koreans, with their Hyundai, Kia, Samsung, etc., etc., will NOT let that happen. (The "drone").
on March 29,2013 | 05:53PM
Ronin006 wrote:
The United States has been providing North Korea millions of dollars in food and energy aid year after year despite North Korea threatening military action against the US year after year. The US and other countries that have been supporting this rouge regime with food and energy aid year After year need to turn off the spigot completely to bring North Korea to an end. Yes, many North Koreans may suffer by the discontinuance of aid, but I do not believe they will suffer much more than they have been suffering under their Communist leaders.
on March 29,2013 | 05:53PM
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