South Korea's military remained on alert for a second day, after North Korea threatened military action in response to Seoul's recent, tougher stance against its communist neighbor.
ROK forces went to a higher state of readiness on Saturday, after a DPRK spokesman described South Korean President Lee Myung-bak a "traitor," and accused him of preparing of preparing a "military provocation." For good measure, the statement was read by a military officer, not a TV news anchor.
Pyongyang said it was adopting "an all-out confrontational posture" and warned of a "strong military retaliatory step." South Korea immediately put its forces on alert.
Seoul's Yonhap news agency reported Sunday that the South has significantly beefed up forces along its heavily armed land border with the North and near their disputed western sea border. But the presidential office and the Defense Ministry denied the report.
Pyongyang is upset because Mr. Lee has ended unconditional aid to the DPRK, a hallmark of recent South Korean governments. President Lee understands that Kim Jong-il's regime has used nuclear negotiations to extract more aid from his country and the United States. While the current ROK government is open to more talks, it is demanding that North Korea comply with existing agreements.
Seoul's tougher policy stands in stark contrast to the outgoing Bush Administration, which has tolerated Pyongyang's stalling and obfuscation on the Six Party nuclear deal. The accord is currently stalled over the verification of North Korea's nuclear activities. Before that, the release of DPRK funds--frozen in a Macau bank--delayed the agreement.
The current round of saber-rattling clearly has two goals: first, Pyongyang is hoping to force the Seoul government into a more flexible position, and secondly, it wants Barack Obama's attention on Inauguration Day.
So far, the Blue House shows no sign of backing down. Defense sources in Seoul suggest that ROK forces along the DMZ have been beefed up. They also report that North Korean units have not made any "unusual moves" that might foreshadow a further escalation, or a limited attack.
The DPRK threat comes at a time of year when North Korea military readiness is nearing its peak. Pyongyang's armed forces carry out their most important drills during the annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC), which runs from early December through the end of March.
North Korea's winter training period follows a building-block approach, beginning with small-unit drills in December, and moving on to division-level exercises in January. Training at the corps level usually begins in February and the cycle concludes with nationwide exercises in March. The winter training cycle is considered the most important for North Korean Army and SOF units. Air Force drills also increase in the winter, although bad weather--and occasional accidents--reduce sortie levels. Training for the DPRK Navy is limited during the WTC, due to conditions in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan.
How will Mr. Obama react to an obvious challenge from Pyongyang? So far, the President-elect seems wedded to the diplomatic track initiated by his predecessor. During her confirmation hearings last week, Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton promised that the Obama team will engage friends and foes "more quickly" than the Bush Administration.
It has also been revealed that Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea, will be staying on at State under Mrs. Clinton. Suffice it to say that the Six Party Process will continue, despite the change of administrations.
And that underscores the real trouble with American policies toward the DPRK. Not only is Pyongyang bound to test the new President (believing it has no more to fear than it did under Mr. Bush), the Obama White House is also facing a potential rift with its allies. Both Seoul and Tokyo have grown tired of North Korea's antics, and favor a tougher line toward Kim Jong-il.
As a result, our most important allies in east Asia will put immediate pressure on Mr. Obama to use more sticks than carrots in dealing with Pyongyang. If he refuses go along, the new president may find it tough going on other issues which require assistance from South Korea and Japan.