But these are not "normal" times on the peninsula. Not only is North Korea in dire economic straits, it is also in the midst of a political transition. And to help the "heir apparent" (Kim Jong-un) stake his claim to power, there are signs that Pyongyang may be preparing to up the ante once again, by conducting the nation's third nuclear test. Preparations at North Korea's primary test site were reportedly underway in late October, and were continuing a "brisk pace" as recently as last week. From the Global Times:
Recent satellite images show heightened activities such as tunneling at the Punggyeri nuclear complex, where the second atomic test blast was detonated last year - three years after the first test in 2006, the report said.
"It appears to be true that some preparations are underway there, but we're not sure what they are for," the Korea Herald quoted a South Korean foreign ministry official as saying Wednesday. "We're keeping a close watch." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Pan Rui, a professor from the Center of American Studies at Fudan University, said it would not be a surprise if a third nuclear test happened.
If Pyongyang carries out the third test, it would most likely be aimed at helping boost the stature of Kim Jong-un--earlier appointed to senior military and political posts."
While some South Korean officials are now back-tracking on claims of a pending DPRK nuclear test, the preparations at Punggyeri have also attracted attention from Washington. South Korea's Chosun Ilbo reports the Pentagon moved a WC-135 Constant Phoenix reconnaissance aircraft to Kadena AB, Okinawa in September, apparently in preparation for a North Korean nuclear test. The WC-135, which deployed prior to Pyongyang's second nuclear blast in 2009, is used to collect airborne radiation and debris released by a nuclear test.
Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and his designated successor, Kim Jong-un, approved the recent artillery barrage against Yeonpeyong Island. South Korean intelligence officials have told members of the National Assembly's Defense Committee that the elder Kim and his son visited the coastal area--where the attack was launched--just before the shelling began. North Korea's Central News Agency has confirmed that Kim Jong-il was in Hwanghae Province on the day of the attack. According to a KCNA report, Kim Jong-il was visiting a duck and fish farm in the area.
But intelligence suggests that Kim and his youngest son also met with the Commander of North Korea's 4th Corps during their trip. The 4th Corps controls military forces along the western sector of the DMZ (opposite Seoul), and in adjacent coastal waters. A meeting between Kim Jong-il, his son and the local Corps Commander would also certainly proceed an attack like the one that occurred on Tuesday; Kim Jong-un's presence was clearly aimed at enhancing his stature in North Korea's military establishment, as one of the "leaders" of the strike.
Indeed, both the elder Kim and his son have been remarkably visible in the days since the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, visiting schools and factories across North Korea. That's a sharp contrast to Kim Jong-il's behavior following other international incidents. In the days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mr. Kim spent more than 50 days hiding in underground tunnels, and another 40 days after the DPRK fired a long-range missile in 2006. The whistle-stop tour of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un suggests they are not concerned about a U.S. or South Korean counter-attack.
As we've noticed previously, Pyongyang has clearly been emboldened by the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last March, and this week's attack on Yeonpyeong. Combined, the two strikes killed 50 ROK military personnel and civilians. In response, North Korea received little more than meaningless sanctions and the proverbial sharply-worded diplomatic protests.
No wonder Kim Jong-il is enjoying those strolls with his son.
Meanwhile, South Korea's defense establishment remains in disarray following the strike. The ROK Defense Minister resigned, and the finger-pointing in military and intelligence circles has already begun. Leaked intelligence reports suggest that South Korean spooks were aware that North Korea had deployed multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) to positions opposite Yeonpyeong in the hours before the attacks.
That deployment should have sent ROK forces to higher alert levels, but (depending on who you believe), word of the MRLs wasn't received by military officials, or simply ignored by commanders. In fact, South Korea media outlets claim that ROK troops weren't sure about the type of weapons being used against them, so the MLRs weren't targeted until the latter stages of the artillery duel.
Let the recriminations begin.