North Korea Fails To Match Words With Meaningful Action

North Korea is threatening to take military action against South Korea and U.S. forces on the peninsula. South Korea is promising it will respond militarily to any such provocation. Meanwhile, a new U.S.-South Korea military pact means U.S. forces may get involved if there is a North-South exchange of hostilities.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. North Korea's apparently hotheaded young leader, Kim Jong Un, has put his rocket forces on standby to target nearby U.S. bases. That was his response this morning to a display of U.S. military power over the Korean Peninsula yesterday.

MONTAGNE: A pair of B-2 Stealth bombers flew from their base in the United States, dropped some dummy bombs on a South Korean island, and then flew back home. The flights were part of an annual military exercise, but they also sent a message.

GREENE: NPR's Tom Gjelten says the United States and South Korea are warning the new North Korean leader that any hostile action will be met with a strong response.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The North Koreans sure seem to be edging toward war. This week, they shut down the last channel of official communication with the South. Their explanation: Not words - only arms will work on the U.S. and the South Korean puppet forces. The North hit the South in November 2010, when North Korean artillery forces shelled a South Korean military base.

The government in Seoul did not retaliate. But Gen.Walter Sharp, who was commanding U.S. forces in Korea at the time, says the leadership in the South vowed that with the next such incident, there'd be no more turning the other cheek.

RETIRED GEN. WALTER SHARP: November of 2010 changed that dynamic, and there will be a very strong response that goes back.

GJELTEN: Evans Revere, who served as a senior U.S. diplomat in South Korea, agrees. The next time North Koreans use force against the South, he believes, the South Koreans will respond with force.

EVANS REVERE: We've had some very explicit statements by senior officers in the South Korean military, about their intention to do so. And I think there is a public expectation, if you will, that the military will defend itself and defend the country.

GJELTEN: Gen. Sharp is now retired from the Army. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this month, he said that if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un really thinks arms are the way to deal with the South, he should prepare to take a strike on his own territory.

SHARP: And I do believe that it shouldn't just be a tit for tat. We need to make it clear that any strike into South Korea, there will be things taken out, in North Korea, that are of value to Kim Jong Un.

GJELTEN: Last week, the U.S. and South Korean militaries signed a counter provocation plan spelling out procedures for a combined South Korean-U.S. response to something like the shelling incident of 2010. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained the plan yesterday.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: This has been an ongoing effort over the last two years, in recognition of the stated position of the South Korean government that they no longer are willing to be provoked. And so, we wanted to make sure we understood what that meant.

GJELTEN: Evans Revere, the former U.S. diplomat, says the North Koreans may now think twice about any provocative action, given what they would then face as a result of the new U.S.-South Korean agreement.

REVERE: It locks the United States a lot more clearly and explicitly, into a retaliatory strike, if you will. And so I think it makes it very clear to the North Koreans that the United States would be part and parcel of the response.

GJELTEN: Of course, the agreement also means the South Koreans now have to consult with U.S. commanders before they respond to a provocation from the North. So is all this the prelude to a new war on the Korean peninsula? Maybe not.

David Kang, a Korea expert at the University of Southern California, notes that just by issuing bellicose statements and cutting military hotlines, the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, may already have sent the message he wanted to send - that he's a force to be reckoned with.

DAVID KANG: There's any number of ways that the North can actually engage in provoking the South, and it's not clear that they necessarily have to start shelling an island.

GJELTEN: Maybe it's enough just to threaten an attack.

KANG: For the North to actually start killing people is taking it to a whole new level - which is a big risk. I mean, they may try and do it. But they've done plenty of provocations in the last couple months, and so they may decide that now, we've done enough; let's see what happens - and sit back for a while.

GJELTEN: In fact, except for cutting those hot lines, the North Koreans have not matched their angry words with meaningful actions. U.S. defense officials say there have been no North Korean military movements they haven't seen before; and a joint North-South factory complex is still operating normally, with South Koreans crossing over into the north each day without incident.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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