SEOUL—The new thrust of North Korean military action above the North-South line exposes the weakness of the U.S. and South Korea in the face of whatever surprises the North is planning next.
U.S. President Donald Trump has shown himself more interested in squeezing Seoul for money to pay for keeping American troops in South Korea than in standing up to increasingly aggressive North Korean efforts at instilling fear in the South.
As if the demolition of a modern multi-story North-South liaison office were not dramatic enough, North Korea raised the rhetorical stakes Thursday, vowing “the explosive sound of justice” would “go far beyond the imagination of those who make a noise about what could unfold.” That liaison office blast, said Rodong Sinmun, organ of the North’s ruling party, was “just the beginning.”
The paper warned "the military's announcement that it is mulling a detailed military action plan should be taken seriously.” This amid South Korean reports of North Korean troops entering the former Kaesong Industrial Complex, site of the liaison office, in force.
Earlier, the North’s Korean People’s Army general staff said it was ordering troops into both the Kaesong zone, just 40 miles north of Seoul, and the abandoned Mount Kumgang tourist zone on the east coast above the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that has separated North and South since 1953.
The North Korean troops would be the vanguard of substantial forces positioned close behind them. About three quarters of the North’s 1.2 million troops are said to be within 100 miles of the DMZ with large units stationed nearer. North Korea also has thousands of artillery pieces well hidden beyond the DMZ, including long-range cannon capable of reaching Seoul.
From positions all along the DMZ, North Korean forces could launch sudden ground attacks on South Korean troops across the line and also open fire with artillery within range of Seoul, not to mention missiles capable of reaching targets deep in the South, including a major American base.
Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong signaled those possibilities as she accused South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in of “shamelessness and impudence.” His offense was suggesting, in language she disdained, that envoys talk things over after the North blew away Moon’s hopes for reconciliation in the rubble of the liaison office.
Leading the rhetorical barrage from Pyongyang, as she has been doing throughout the current crisis, Kim Yo Jong fixed on the symbolic problem of North Korean defectors floating propaganda-laden balloons back into the land they escaped. Moon should have apologized and shown “repentance” along with a “firm pledge to prevent the recurrence of similar occurrences,” Kim Yo Jong declared. But she implied that her fury was caused by much deeper problems, including the South’s failure to oppose the United States and UN on sanctions against the North.
“Now they are trying to shift responsibility for the results of their own making on to us,” she said. “This is literally a brazen and preposterous act.”
The real fear is that behind the bold words lay a plan to stage incidents just short of a frontal attack on the South. That was implicit in the occupation of Kaesong complex, which is beside the truce village of Panmunjom where Moon and Kim signed a broad agreement on reconciliation in April 2018 and U.S. President Donald Trump staged a brief meet and greet photo op with Kim last year.
The language of the North Korean announcement bore the threat of more than just a symbolic display of strength. “Units of the regiment level and necessary firepower sub-units with defense mission will be deployed in the Mount Kumgang tourist area and the Kaesong Industrial Zone," it said. "Civil police posts that had been withdrawn from the Demilitarized Zone under the north-south agreement in the military field will be set up again to strengthen the guard over the front line.”
U.S. and South Korea troops could no doubt respond to “provocations” across the line, but the danger is North Korea would then unlimber its long-range artillery and, finally, the ballistic missiles that it’s got in its inventory.
“The real problem is once it escalates, what happens?” says retired South Korean Lieutenant General Chun In-bum. In the chaos of death and destruction, he says, “It doesn’t matter who wins.”
For now, Chun is confident South Korean and U.S. forces can deal with North Korean forays along the DMZ and also in the Yellow Sea, where North Korea has challenged South Korean warships several times over the years. “We’re pretty good at dealing with local provocations,” says Chun, former commander of South Korea’s special forces, but the tone of North Korean rhetoric, on top of destruction of the liaison office, is worrying.
“They can move forces toward the truce line,” says Kim Tae-woo, a military science professor who previously analyzed North Korean moves for the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, “but if they really attack, the situation enters a new dimension.”
Just as worrisome as North Korea’s strategy is Trump’s uncertain outlook on Korea. “Trump will stay away from Korea,” Kim Tae-woo predicts. “He will not intervene in battles far from his own country.”
A spokesman for President Moon, a political liberal who has pursued a distinctly soft policy line toward the North, said flatly, “We won't tolerate any more of North Korea's indiscreet rhetoric and acts, which fundamentally harm the mutual trust the leaders of the two sides have built so far.”
The bitter repartee was surprising to some observers in part because Moon has attempted to respond with bland pleas for building on attempts at reconciliation and dialogue.
Having already described South Korea as “the enemy,” Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency reverted to language of a previous era in North-South relations. In a commentary, KCNA warned of “setting Seoul on fire”—a favorite expression of North Korean propaganda a quarter century ago.
Moon “responded more sharply than he ever has,” said Steve Tharp, who served as a young army officer in an infantry unit south of the DMZ when North Korea was emitting the same bellicose threats.
Tharp did not think, though, that U.S. and South Korean troops would be ineffective against a North Korean surprise attack. “This is what they train to do every day,” he said. Despite a “slight degradation” caused by Trump’s cancellation of large-scale annual joint military exercises by South Korean and U.S. troops, “they’re always prepared.”
It’s anybody’s guess how the Trump administration will play the current crisis, especially on the issue of South Korean payments for the U.S. troops that have provided vital deterrence for seven decades since North Korean forces invaded the South on June 25, 1950. Nor is it clear how prepared Moon is to mobilize South Koreans for defense against the North after having made reconciliation a centerpiece of his policies.
In the event of a real North Korean “provocation” across the DMZ, the fear is Trump would still be worrying about reducing U.S. forces, keeping them out of harm’s way. While he might boast of all the money saved, South Korea would be left to fend for itself against a power armed with nuclear warheads and the missiles for sending them just about anywhere.