Pentagon wariness over building rhetoric shows fraughtness of Korean situation

Some analysts feel the US had to respond to North Korea’s threats by taking actions such as flying nuclear-capable bombers over South Korea

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un holds up a pistol as he supervises firing drills with the  North Korea People’s Army (KPA), in this still image taken from video footage released by the North's state-run television KRT yesterday

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un holds up a pistol as he supervises firing drills with the North Korea People’s Army (KPA), in this still image taken from video footage released by the North's state-run television KRT yesterday


Even some at the Pentagon appeared to feel that the US may have overdone the rhetoric and provoked North Korea as the US trumpeted its annual war games with South Korea off the power-keg peninsula.

Washington and Seoul hold military drills every year, but it was unusual that, this time around, the US military chose to state it was flying long-range B2 stealth bombers from Missouri to South Korea. This was an additional show of strength to Pyongyang that America’s nuclear umbrella could cover its allies in northeast Asia.

The acts of deterrence were accompanied by comments from newly installed US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel that North Korea’s threats posed a “real and clear danger” to the US and its allies. There were further deployments of anti-ballistic missile defences to the US island territory of Guam in the Pacific.

The tone of North Korea’s warmongering rhetoric continued as its army threatened the “moment of explosion is approaching fast”. As the military moves intensified on both sides, the US tried to “ratchet back” the rhetoric.

While nobody assessing the threat believes North Korea can hit mainland US with a missile carrying a nuclear warhead, the proximity of Seoul and Tokyo makes the risk of a closer-range strike sparking a peninsula-wide or regional conflict very real.

Flexing muscles
Add to this the young and relatively new leader, Kim Jong-un, eager to flex the country’s developing military muscles and quash any perception of appearing weak.

North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island under Kim Jong-il in 2010 remind of the extent to which the country is willing to act if pushed. Unusually heated US rhetoric could goad Kim Jong-il’s son into making an even bigger statement than his father by firing North Korea’s new mobile KN08 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which has the capability to reach Guam.

“Given the depth of vulnerability that North Korea feels for itself, there is an argument that we need to be very careful about what signals of resilience we send, lest they trigger a response from North Korea,” said Jonathan Pollack, at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington DC.

The US has undoubtedly upped the ante by publicising rare practice flights by B2 bombers over South Korea. Mixed messages from different arms of the US government have also fanned the flames. The White House may have tried to dampen down tensions by highlighting what it saw as the “disconnect” between North Korea’s rhetoric and action, but the Pentagon was busy dispatching missile defence ships and systems in the western Pacific as precautionary measures and warning of a “real” danger.

Some analysts feel the US was left with a difficult choice and had to respond to North Korea’s nuclear threats by taking controversial actions such as flying nuclear-capable bombers over South Korea.

‘Damned’ either way
“They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t do it,” said James Acton, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington DC think tank. “They were duty-bound to protect their allies in South Korea and Japan, yet on the other hand it did have the effect of escalating the crisis. Not doing anything could also have escalated the crisis.”

Internally, the US reaction has been seen as proportionate and appropriate, but concerns at the Pentagon about tit-for-tat rhetoric shows a new-found fear of provoking an incident. Such an event would force the Obama administration to delve deeper into its “playbook” of pre-scripted actions and responses to North Korean aggression, far deeper than it would want.

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