Shown here in a file photo, the USS Ronald Reagan will soon become the third U.S. aircraft carrier operating in waters off northeast Asia, along with the USS George Washington and the USS Carl Vinson. The presence of three carrier battle groups will give American commanders more options for dealing with the situation in North Korea (Wikipedia photo).
As we observed in a recent post, the coming months on the Korean Peninsula will be a particularly dangerous time. Not only is North Korea expected to ratchet up provocations against the South, there is a very good chance the Seoul government will respond in kind, launching counter-strikes on a scale previously unobserved in that volatile region.
Bottom line: the prospects for renewed conflict in Korea haven't been this high since the late 1960s, when DPRK forces shot down a U.S. EC-121 spy plane and seized the USS Pueblo, an intelligence-collection ship operating off the North Korean forces. We responded with a massive military build-up on the peninsula, but North Korea still held the Pueblo's crew for a year before they were finally released.
Five decades later, Pyongyang hasn't launched a similar provocation against U.S. forces (at least not yet). Still, the possibility of North Korea attacking our military assets in the region is much higher than in recent years, as Kim Jong-il's regime tries to transfer power to his youngest son, establish his credentials as the nation's next leader, and extract more concessions from the United States and South Korea.
It's a difficult geopolitical juggling act, but the future of North Korea literally hinges on accomplishment of those goals. So, the early weeks of 2011 will be especially tense in Northeast Asia, as Pyongyang makes its next move, dictating some sort of response from Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
At this time of year, the DPRK is not without options. The annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC) of the North Korean military is in full swing, meaning that combat units will be nearing peak readiness over the next three months. That fact was reaffirmed today, with reports that Kim Jong-il personally observed a armored drill conducted by his army's 105th Guards Tank Division.
The North Korean news dispatch suggests that DPRK military training is on schedule, or even slightly ahead of schedule. Early drills in the WTC focus on small-unit operations, then move on to larger formations at the brigade and division levels. Corps-level exercises will come next, building towards a national defense exercise in late March.
It's unclear how many tanks from that division took part in today's training. In recent years, armored drills have been conducted on a slightly smaller scale, to save precious fuel and other resources. But with the "Dear Leader" in attendance, fuel savings were hardly a consideration. It's a safe bet that the division on display rolled out enough tanks to satisfy the dictator, who was reportedly "pleased" by what he saw.
Kim's presence at the exercise also raised some caution flags. In March of last year, he visited a naval base before a DPRK sub torpedoed (and sank) a South Korean corvette, killing 46 ROK sailors. And just last month, the North Korean leader and his heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, inspected a North Korean artillery just hours before it opened fire on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island. Today's visit prompted suggestions that the 105th might be involved in some future provocation.
But that appears unlikely--at least for now. The 105th, one of the oldest armored units in the North Korean Army, is something of a "showcase" organization, and frequently visited by VIPs. In fact, Kim Jong-il inspected the division earlier this year. So today's visit may not be a harbinger of the next sneak attack.
Besides, there are more troubling scenarios on the horizon. There may be a new wrinkle in Pyongyang's plans for its next nuclear test. Reza Khalili, a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer (and CIA operative) believes North Korea is preparing to test a device for Iran. He made that claim in a column posted yesterday at FoxNews.com: