N. Korea even makes experts nervous

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 12:23 a.m.

It happens every year.

U.S. troops prepare for spring war games in South Korea, and North Korea goes crazy.

"It's their annual temper tantrum," Christopher Hill, former assistant secretary of State and ambassador to South Korea and Iraq, told the Tribune-Review.

Usually, the rest of the world worries more than the South Koreans, who have grown weary of constant threats of instant incineration.

This year is different. Worry has replaced nonchalance for many South Koreans and experts, who say the level of real threat from the North is nearing the level of the rhetoric.

"There is a risk of miscalculation," warns Scott Snyder, a Korean expert on the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the formal name for North Korea, has a young, untested leader in Kim Jong Un, who assumed power after the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il. With a long-range ballistic missile successfully tested in December, he threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes on South Korea and the U.S. mainland in retaliation for the allies' joint military exercises.

Other factors changing the dynamic: Park Geun-hye, a newly elected and also untested president of South Korea; a changing of the leadership in China, the North's main trading partner and not-so-solid ally; and a U.S. military confronting significant budget cuts.

"I am pretty sure that the regime will have to actually take what military men like to call ‘kinetic' action," said Christopher Green, a North Korean expert in Cambridge, England. By that, he said, he means a military move.

"I am very concerned about what they might do," James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. He said North Korea "could initiate a provocative action against the South."

What kind of military action might North Korean take and when remains in question.

Three years ago, after the annual war games ended and extra U.S. forces left the scene, then-North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il directed nearly 200 artillery shells toward a disputed island, Yeonpyeong. Four South Koreans were killed.

Now his successor, believed to be about 30, must prove himself in a society that honors and confers status to those who are older. That adds another element of uncertainty to the situation, experts said.

Hill said he expects any military provocation to take a similar form, because Seoul would consider an attack on any part of mainland South Korea "to be an act of war and would respond strongly."

"We would be in the soup," Hill said of the United States.

Snyder, who plans to visit Seoul next week, said he expects no provocation while the joint military exercises - known as Key Resolve/Foal Eagle - extend through April. The United States stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea, but the joint exercises adds several thousand, as well as ships, aircraft and other equipment.

North Korea, which conducted its third nuclear test on Feb. 12, expressed its displeasure over the exercise, warning "the black cloud of a nuclear war is coming."

North Korea once could rely on China to stand by its side, but China is showing "angst about North Korea," Hill said. China voted with the United States to impose tighter U.N. Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang after the recent nuclear test.

There was reciprocal angst in South Korea about how firmly the United States will stare down the North's nuclear threat. Many people called for South Korea to build its own nuclear bombs.

That is something that China would not want, said Hill, who was special U.S. envoy to talks aimed at denuclearizing the North. He believes the United States will reassure Seoul on its nuclear umbrella, and Washington and Beijing will "work more closely together" to tame North Korea's belligerence.

Henry Morris, an international asset advisor with 25 years of experience in Seoul, told colleagues in London in an email this week it is possible that "if the North's government were to sense that it was about to collapse" it could decide to go down in a "blaze of glory."

Morris said North Korea retains two links to the outside: the Kaesong Industrial Complex near the border with South Korea, and mining interests close to China. The industrial complex is run by South Korean firms paying workers in the North hard currency, something that's in short supply under the communist regime. China increasingly taps North Korea's reserves of minerals.

"If the Northern government were to shut down Kaesong, then that would be a very strong signal that they were about to do something radical," Morris wrote.

The same would apply if Chinese mining managers "were to be abruptly repatriated to China."

Since neither has happened, Morris said "there is no need to panic."

Lou Kilzer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5628 or lkilzer@tribweb.com.

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