North Korea’s enigmatic leader, Kim Jong-un, seems intent on taking tensions on the Korean Peninsula to unprecedented new heights with each passing day. After weeks of bombastic warmongering and public proclamations threatening to destroy the South and annihilate the United States, Pyongyang has now proclaimed that a “state of war” exists between the North and the South.
On 26 March, North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that Kim and the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) had placed units of the KPA on the highest level of combat readiness, a move that has not been undertaken since the Ceasefire Armistice was signed in 1953. The heightened state of readiness placed the North’s field artillery units, long-range artillery batteries, and strategic rocket units on a war footing with orders to prepare to strike select targets in Guam, Japan, Hawaii, and the US mainland.
A day later, Pyongyang announced that it was severing a key military communication line with Seoul. Earlier in the month, the North disconnected a Red Cross hotline frequently used by the two Koreas to communicate since the two nations have no formal diplomatic relations.
During an emergency meeting with military leaders in the early morning hours of 29 March, according to reports released by KCNA, Kim approved a directive placing the KPA’s strategic missile units on standby with orders to prepare for strikes against targets in the US mainland and against US military installations in South Korea, Hawaii, Guam, and Japan.
KCNA quoted Kim as stating that the North was fully prepared “to settle accounts with the US imperialists.” Kim is also quoted as commanding the KPA’s rocket units to be “on standby so that our forces can shoot and strike targets at any time.”
Pyongyang’s recent threats of war followed on the heels of a US announcement, released on 28 March, that two B-2 Spirit stealth bombers flew from the US mainland to a South Korean bombing range as part of the annual Foal Eagle training exercise now occupying the attention of US and Republic of Korea (ROK) military forces in the South.
US Forces Korea (USFK) publicly announced that two B-2 nuclear-capable bombers flew from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to South Korea where they simulated a bombing run with inert munitions on South Korea’s Jik Do Bombing Range, an uninhabited islet used frequently by US and ROK forces for bomber training. The two bombers, assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB, flew more than 20,000 kilometers roundtrip, using in-flight refueling, enroute to the bombing range. The B-2 is capable of carrying up to 23 tons of nuclear and conventional munitions and is designed to penetrate deep into enemy-held territory while evading hostile radar to deliver a devastating strike on critical targets such as command and control facilities. After delivering their dummy munitions, the two bombers flew safely back to their home base in Missouri. Although the B-2s have participated in past exercises, including flights over South Korea in 2000, this is the first time the bomber crews delivered inert munitions on target.
A prepared Defense Department statement said the B-2 mission “demonstrates the United States’ ability to conduct long-range, precision strikes quickly and at will.” US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, told reporters at the Pentagon that General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, characterized the B-2 operation as a clear-cut message of support for American allies and was not intended as a provocation or a veiled threat directed at the North.
The announcement of the B-2 flight followed an earlier announcement that the United States Air Force (USAF) flew two B-52 training flights over the South in March, one aircraft overflew the South on 8 March and a second conducted a low-altitude flight on 19 March. According to USAF sources, the two B-52s were not carrying munitions on these flights although they are capable of carrying a massive load of conventional and nuclear ordnance.
News of the B-52 flights is reported to have infuriated Kim Jong-un compelling him to place KPA artillery and rocket forces on combat alert. The B-2 flight appears to be the source of Kim’s decision to put KPA rocket forces on wartime standby and his rationale for declaring that a “state of war” exists with the South.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Service released a report quoting an unnamed ROK military official as saying a “sharp increase” in vehicular and personnel traffic has been detected in the areas surrounding Pyongyang’s long-range missile sites. South Korea’s Ministry of Defense has so far failed to confirm this report and admits only that US and ROK intelligence sources are engaged in intense surveillance of all strategic sites in the North.
Pyongyang also threatened on 29 March to close a joint North/South industrial complex located in North Korea some six kilometers north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The site is responsible for as much as $2 billion in trade each year for the North and is a vital source of unsanctioned income that Pyongyang is desperately in need of.
The Kaesong Industrial Zone has so far remained open although Pyongyang has closed it in the past in response to heightened tensions only to reopen it once tempers had cooled. The Kaesong site appears to be operating normally even though a communication link used to coordinate the movement of South Korean workers to the site has been disconnected.
While Pyongyang’s threats and bombast are worrisome, nearly all analysts agree that the North does not currently have the means of striking targets in the continental United States and there is grave doubt that the KPA is capable of hitting targets in Guam or Hawaii.
While wholesale warfare is an unlikely prospect, many experts are concerned that even a limited confrontation of a localized nature could escalate beyond the point of no return and embroil the Pacific in a conflict that could endanger tens of thousands and disrupt the political stability of the region.
However, the North has demonstrated that its Rodong-1 medium-range missiles can reach a distance of approximately 1,300 kilometers and are capable of hitting US installations in Japan. These missiles are believed to be fully operational and represent a credible threat to Japan-based forces.
Logic would naturally dictate that Kim Jong-un would be foolish beyond all reason to launch an attack aimed directly at US forces in the Pacific region. To do so would constitute a willful act of suicide on the part of the North. While the North could possibly inflict severe damage on Pacific-based American forces, Pyongyang could never withstand the wrath of an incensed and overwhelming American response.
At present, the most anyone can hope for is that Kim quickly satisfies his need to impress the North Korean populace and then reconsiders the path of destruction he has chosen for his nation and his people.