South Korea's Chosun Ilbo, citing recent intelligence data, reports that Pyongyang may soon launch a major military exercise along its western coast.
"... government sources say, based on information from intelligence teams, North Korea appears poised for a rare, large-scale military drill.
Government officials, who do not want to be named, say they are "observing closely" North Korean positions. But they say there are no indications the massing of military personnel appears to be anything more than a drill.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, addressing reporters in Washington on Monday, did not make mention of the apparent preparations in North Korea for a military exercise. But the admiral did express concern that Pyongyang’s military will conduct some sort of action against the South again, at some point.
According to South Korean intel reporting, North Korea has assembled a "significant" number of troops and MiG-21 fighters at two bases along the Yellow Sea coast, along with more than 20 naval vessels.
The military build-up is in the same area where ROK forces and the North Korean military have clashed in recent years. There was a major naval engagement in 1999 that resulted in the sinking of a DPRK patrol vessel. In March of last year, one of Pyongyang's submarines torpedoed and sank a South Korean corvette, killing more than 40 sailors. And just six months later, DPRK artillery units shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island, killing two soldiers, and triggering the latest standoff between the two rivals.
North Korean preparations come ahead of the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise conducted by U.S. and South Korean forces. Pyongyang has long protested the drill, claiming that it is a rehearsal for an invasion of the North. Never mind that Freedom Guardian (and its predecessor, Ulchi Focus Lens) are purely defensive in nature. Kim Jong-il will use any excuse to ratchet up tensions on the peninsula, and attempt to milk more assistance from Seoul and Washington.
While such tactics are hardly new, the reported level of North Korean military activity is highly unusual for this time of year. Traditionally, DPRK troops spend their summers engaged in "agricultural projects," trying to help eek out their country's meager harvest. Following the end of Pyongyang's annual Winter Training Cycle (December-March), military activity slows dramatically and comes to a virtual standstill during the late spring and summer.
Given North Korea's chronic shortages of food, fuel and electricity, it's rather doubtful that Kim Jong-il would authorize these preparations merely to rattle the sabre. More disturbingly, ROK intel officials claim the elder Kim and his son (designated heir Kim Jong un) recently visited DPRK naval command headquarters in Pyongyang. The Kims conducted a similar inspection of coastal artillery units last November, just hours before they opened fire on Yeonpyeong Island.
A master of brinkmanship, Kim clearly sees an opportunity on the Korean Peninsula. He believes the U.S. is pre-occupied with domestic issues and unlikely to respond forcibly to his next provocation. He is also counting on a restrained response from Seoul, similar to the one that followed the loss of the corvette and the shelling of Yeonpyeong last year. In both cases, South Korea did not respond with direct military force, and Kim Jong-il expects a similar reaction this time around.
Recent military moves in North Korea--virtually unreported in the U.S. media--remind us that the world is still a dangerous place. And that danger is multiplied by an administration which refuses to confront our adversaries.