The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics -

U.S. and al­lied in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are on alert for another round of threats and provo­ca­tions from North Korea’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment.

The Py­ongyang regime for years has en­gaged in a back-and-forth pol­icy that in­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials say in­cludes pe­ri­ods of threats and provo­ca­tions fol­lowed by months of rel­a­tive calm, low­ered ten­sions and charm of­fen­sives.

The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ap­pears to be in non-provocation mode. U.S. of­fi­cials said they were sur­prised by North Korea’s mild crit­i­cism of re­cent U.S. mil­i­tary ex­er­cises in the re­gion, com­pared with past rhetoric that in­cluded threats to turn ri­val South Korea into a sea of fire.

In­tel­li­gence agen­cies that mon­i­tor North Korea say the trend may be chang­ing. The rea­son: Pres­i­dent Obama made no men­tion of the reclu­sive com­mu­nist state in his Sept. 24 ad­dress to the U.N. Gen­eral As­sem­bly.

As a re­sult, there are con­cerns that the mer­cu­rial Mr. Kim may con­duct some type of mil­i­tary provocation to draw at­ten­tion once again to his nu­clear-armed state, which is said to be work­ing on de­vel­op­ing small war­heads for its long-range mis­siles.

A con­ven­tional mil­i­tary at­tack on South Korea, like the 2010 sink­ing of a war­ship and ar­tillery shelling of Yeon­pyeong Is­land, is not ex­pected in the next round of provo­ca­tions, of­fi­cials said.

In­tel­li­gence agen­cies think the next in­cite­ment could be another long-range mis­sile launch, like the test-fir­ing of a Tae­podong-2 in De­cem­ber that vi­o­lated U.N. sanc­tions against mis­sile tests.

The out­go­ing com­man­der of U.S. mil­i­tary forces in Korea, Army Gen. James D. Thur­man, voiced con­cerns about North Korean provo­ca­tions dur­ing a meet­ing Wed­nes­day with re­porters in Seoul.

Gen. Thur­man said he is op­ti­mistic that “we would see a change of be­hav­ior” in Py­ongyang af­ter Mr. Kim as­sumed power in De­cem­ber 2011.

How­ever, a Fe­bru­ary 2012 agree­ment by North Korea to halt ura­nium en­rich­ment col­lapsed and a long-range mis­sile was tested in April, events the gen­eral said “caused me a great deal of worry.”

Next came stepped-up North Korean rhetoric that con­tin­ued through May. The threats raised the prospect that a “mis­cal­cu­la­tion” by North Korea could trig­ger a re­newed con­flict.

“I’ve seen that now toned down, and I agree, I think the big­gest con­cerns I see out of [Mr. Kim] is a con­tin­ued de­sire to have nu­clear weapons, nu­clear ma­te­ri­als, de­vel­op­ment of long-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles and im­prove­ment in long-range ar­tillery,” Gen. Thur­man said.

“We’ve got to keep a close watch on them ev­ery day,” he said. “It’s clear to me, he’s in charge up there.”

Gen. Thur­man said U.S. forces work closely with South Korea’s mil­i­tary, adding that the two ar­mies de­vel­oped a “coun­ter­provo­ca­tion plan” af­ter the at­tacks in 2010.

South Korea’s gov­ern­ment has said it would not stand by idly if struck again, as it did af­ter the war­ship sink­ing and is­land shelling that killed 48 sailors and marines and two civil­ians.

The joint mil­i­tary plan “al­lows us to con­trol a rapid es­ca­la­tion of a provocation,” he said.

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