LOOKING FOR TROUBLE
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.