As we noted in a previous post, North Korea has been busy of late, ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula. First came Pyongyang's latest nuclear tests; followed by the successful launch of a long-range rocket that put a payload into orbit (the same technology can be used in ICBMs). And, for good measure, the DPRK's new leader, Kim Jong-un, apparently gave the order to cancel the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, threatened nuclear strikes against the United States, and directed his air force to operate at unprecedented levels in the final phases of the annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC).
While some of Kim's threats are clearly hollow, there are growing signs of concern in U.S. defense circles. Last week, new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the deployment of 14 additional, land-based missile interceptors at bases in Alaska and California--a move clearly aimed at countering a North Korean missile threat to the United States. Unfortunately, the last of those interceptor missiles won't go on line until 2017, about a year after North Korea has a long-range, nuclear tipped missile capable of hitting the CONUS.
Then, there's this bit of news, courtesy of Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon:
“It’s not any secret that we are in the midst of sending a very strong signal that we have a firm commitment to the alliance with our South Korean allies,” Little said.
The Foal Eagle maneuvers will highlight both nuclear and conventional capabilities of the B-52s, Little said, adding that the flights were routine.
Mr. Gertz is correct; it is highly unusual for the U.S. to openly discuss the possible use of nuclear weapons in the Pacific, or any other region. For decades, defense officials have preferred more vague statements, acknowledging the American nuclear arsenal, but saying little about how it might be used.
The reasoning behind the change is quite obvious; North Korea's nuclear and missile threats are maturing rapidly and within the next three or four years (at the outside), we will witness the day when Pyongyang has nuclear-tipped missiles on alert, and capable of hitting strategic targets in the United States. And, with the DPRK making hay about its evolving capabilities, someone in the White House or Pentagon believed it was appropriate to send a little reminder to Pyongyang.
But there's some debate as to whether the "message" is being received. Years of threats and bluster have given North Korea attention on the world stage; increased food aid for its starving population, and treatment as an "equal" in talks with the U.S. and other regional players. And, with Iran now a key ally of the DPRK, there less concern about dwindling food supplies and other hazards. Thanks to its friends in Tehran, the DPRK may withstand the latest economic sanctions more easily.
With U.S. bombers now constantly deployed to the region, the Air Force can repeatedly demonstrate its potential capabilities Still, it's one thing to fly a practice nuke mission near North Korea and quite another to actually carry out such sorties on a sustained basis. If past activity pattersn offer any indicator, North Korea may propose some type of goodwill gesture during the coming weeks, making vague offers to "reduce" tensions on the peninsula, in exchange for more talks.
If we don't, there will be more nuclear and missile tests, and new propaganda videos, showing Washington (or some other American city) disappearing in a DPRK nuclear cloud. It's a type of rope-a-dope strategy that Pyongyang has perfected, creating a perpetual cycle of cheat, retreat and promise that has created the time required to develop nuclear weapons and the required delivery platforms. Amazingly, even some of those in Washington who have urged diplomacy in the past now see the folly of our policies. David Ignatius of the Washington Post--hardly a war hawk--recently obsrved that it is time hope for the best and prepare by the worst.
With the recent B-52 flights near North Korea--and plans to deploy more interceptor missiles--it seems that we may be adopting such a strategy. The question now becomes: is the White Hose willing to sustain such measures, and are we still prepared to go to war over South Korea. Judging from Pyongyang's recent belligerency, they apparently believe that we won't. Now, it's up to President Obama and Mr. Hagel to prove that we mean business. The alternative is further sabre-rattling by North Korea (or worse) and a wider arms race in East Asia.