SEOUL (Reuters) - Washington’s decision to fly B-52 and stealth bomber missions over Korea this week in a warning to Pyongyang risks pushing the North into staging an attack on the South just as its threats may have been on the cusp of dying down.
New leaders in Seoul, Beijing and most importantly, an untested 30-year-old in Pyongyang who has to prove he is capable of facing down a perceived threat from the United States, have raised the stakes in a month-long standoff that risks flaring into a conflict.
“It seems that Kim Jong-un is in the driving seat of a train that has been taken on a joyride,” said Lee Min-yong, North Korea expert at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul.
With the looming April 15 celebrations to commemorate the birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current ruler, and large chunks of North Korea’s peasant army due to head to farms for spring planting, the crisis may have been lurching to a close before the American bombers’ flights on Thursday.
Instead, pictures of Kim Jong-un released by the state-owned KCNA news agency showed him sketching out a response to the stealth bomber flights and depicted the possible paths of North Korean missile attacks on U.S. bases in the Pacific and on the United States itself.
The missile threat to U.S. bases in the Pacific and certainly to the continental United States may be overstated, given the untested nature of North Korea’s longer-range missiles. But the risk to South Korea is real.
Seoul is just over 40 km (25 miles) from the massed artillery and battle-proven short-range Scud missiles placed north of the demilitarised zone that separates the two sides. And North Korea has proved, as recently as 2010, that it is capable of launching strikes on the South.
In that year, it was charged with sinking a South Korean naval vessel and shelled an island close to the maritime border.
A study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies says North Korea keeps 80 percent of its estimated firepower within 100 km (60 miles) of the zone. This includes approximately 700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery systems and 2,000 tanks, it said.
Deng Yuwen, deputy editor at the Study Times, a newspaper published by China’s Central Party School which trains rising officials, believes neither side intends to wage a full-scale war in which the “Americans will stamp him (Kim) out like an ant and crush him” but says the risk of conflict has risen.
“This doesn’t rule out the risk of misfiring, this kind of accident cannot be ruled out,” Deng said.
While Pyongyang has a new Kim in charge, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and China’s new leader Xi Jinping took office just this year.
Before becoming president, Park pledged engagement in return for the North giving up its nuclear ambitions. Just a week before she took office, Pyongyang literally exploded those policies when it carried out its third nuclear test on February 12.
While Park has no option but to sit and wait, China’s Xi will have to navigate a tricky path that seeks to restrain and punish the North, as it did by backing United Nations sanctions imposed after the test. But, as the North’s only major ally and its supplier of food and fuel, Beijing will not go too far.
“If the Chinese take too stringent measures, the situation in North Korea will be even more unstable,” said Deng.
However, the script of the Korean Peninsula being on the verge of widespread conflict has been played out many times after the 1950-53 war. American B-52 bombers were used to pressure the North in the 1970s.
In 1976, a U.S. decision to remove a tree in the demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas saw two American soldiers bludgeoned to death with axe handles. This was followed by a show of military force that included the bombers.
That incident passed without major conflict even though North Korea subsequently fired on an American helicopter.
North Korea’s state media has a long history of antagonistic rhetoric, threatening to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” and dubbing one South Korean President a “rat-bastard” .
Even its recent repudiation of the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War has happened before.
If it was not for the American bomber flights, North Korea may have been willing to tone down tensions around now because of the spring thaw. This is the time of year its peasant army helps with planting, a key task in a country that suffers from perennial food shortages.
While that doesn’t affect missile units and the core elite troops, experts in Seoul say that large parts of the North’s 1.2 million-strong armed forces spend about a month on the farm from mid-April onwards.
“The soldiers are sent for ‘farm support.’ They stay on the farms and engage in planting like all the other farming population. They usually stay until around May 20 and leave once they are done,” said Ahn Chan-il, a high-ranking North Korean defector who now lives in Seoul.
Washington’s bomber flights appear to have been aimed at reassuring key allies in South Korea and Japan that it stood beside them amid the North’s sabre-rattling.
President Barack Obama, who closely controls all major national security decision-making within the White House, has shown himself to be reluctant to involve the United States in foreign conflicts.
He has stayed largely on the sidelines in the Syrian civil war, minimized U.S. involvement in Libya and rebuffed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to press him for military action against Iran‘a nuclear program.
New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was wounded in combat in a earlier war in Asia, in Vietnam, and has spoken of the need to use military force only as a last resort.
“From the U.S. point of view, it is appropriate to reassure South Korea of U.S. continuing commitment, especially in these times where some people may doubt that commitment due to the financial crisis,” said Denny Roy, an expert on Asia-Pacific security at the East-West Center thinktank In Hawaii.
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in BEIJING; Jack Kim and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Warren Strobel and Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan