Concerns over US launching ‘limited’ strike or ‘preventive’ action against North Korea after the Olympics

Despite peace gestures tied to next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, officials in South Korea are worried the U.S. may be preparing for military action against North Korea.

Bruce Klingner, former chief of the CIA Korea division and now senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Washington-based conservative think Heritage Foundation, just returned from Korea, where he heard firsthand the concerns of senior South Korean officials. He said the unanimous view is that even a limited strike would certainly trigger a response from the North Koreans.

Some proponents of the Trump administration’s limited-strike option contend that the North Koreans might actually hold back from any military response out of fear that the risks of doing so are too great because it could produce a massive response from Washington and perhaps be fatal to the Kim regime. Yet others disagree, saying the North Korea leader would look bad if he didn’t respond since the regime has blamed the U.S. for crippling international sanctions and its other problems. They also contend that a faction of the military could act on its own if Kim failed to order a military response.

“Kim would have no choice but to respond back or he’d face the possibility of a coup,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a U.S. think tank. “And maybe even respond more ferociously than we attack him.”

Any retaliation could potentially pose a threat to the greater Seoul area, where about half of the South Korean population lives. North Koreans are known to have thousands of hardened artillery sites, including some dug into mountains, along the Korean DMZ and within range of Seoul.

Another wildcard is what China would do if the U.S. were to conduct a strike against North Korea. An editorial last year in China’s semi-official Global Times newspaper suggested Beijing might help North Korea if Washington launched a pre-emptive attack. China was noticeably absent last week when diplomats from 20 countries met in Vancouver, British Columbia, to discuss the North Korean nuclear threat and international sanctions.

The upcoming war games known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve are set to get underway after the Olympics and involve American and South Korean ships, tanks and aircraft as well as live-fire exercises and more than 230,000 combined troops.

[CNBC]

South Korea’s ‘Defector TV’

Despite sharing the same peninsula, South Koreans didn’t know much about their northern neighbors. The ‘Defector TV’ formula takes a reality TV approach – putting North Korean asylum seekers on the air, exploring what their lives were like before defecting and even setting them up with romantic partners from the south.

The producers involved say they’re out to improve understanding and pave the way to reunification of countries divided since the end of World War II, but sceptics say the shows are heavy on misrepresentation, sensationalism and sexist stereotyping.

[Prior to December 2011, there had “never been a programme about North Korea before,” explains Kim A-ra, defector and broadcaster of Channel A. “North Korea was only ever seen through the news, which kept talking about nuclear issues, the North Korean army, how poor North Korea is … That was it.”

“The question of whether they break down prejudices or reinforce them is difficult,” says Christopher Green, co-editor of Sino-NK. “The fact of the matter is they mostly do both simultaneously. They certainly seek to convey information about North Korea … [and] they have the tendency to reinforce some prejudices as well.”

For instance, 70 percent of North Korean defectors are women and the ones that find themselves on TV often end up reinforcing a cultural stereotype: that beautiful North Korean women are the best partners for South Korean men.

In shows like “Love Unification”, young North Korean women are paired with South Korean men who proceed to instruct them on the ways of the modern, developed country in which they now live.

[Al Jazeera]

North and South Korea to march together under one flag at Winter Olympics

North and South Korean athletes will march together at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony under a unified flag, the South said Wednesday, in a diplomatic breakthrough following days of talks between the two countries.

The nations have also agreed to form a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team for the Games in Pyeongchang, which begin early next month, South Korea’s unification ministry said. North and South Korean skiers will also train together at a resort in North Korea before the Olympics start, and performers from the two countries will also hold a joint cultural event there.

North Korea will also send around 230 supporters to cheer on its athletes. A smaller delegation of North Korean athletes and supporters will attend the Paralympics, the ministry said.

While the two sides have earned praise for ratcheting down military tensions in recent weeks, some of Seoul’s allies voiced concern Wednesday that Pyongyang may be using the talks to buy time to pursue its weapons program.

[CNN]

The North Korean “Tunnels of Aggression”

The U.S. Army has reportedly stepped up training efforts for North Korea’s massive network of underground tunnels amid ongoing tension and threats of a military conflict from both nations. The Army is training thousands of soldiers while the Pentagon is buying up gear that would specifically help troops fight in the North’s tunnels, NPR reported Tuesday morning citing unnamed U.S. officials.

The well-documented tunnel system, possibly around 5,000 of them, in the isolationist state reportedly contains not only pathways for troops across the demilitarized zone but also artillery and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. One such tunnel was discovered a mere 32 miles away from Seoul, the South’s capital city.

The tunnels, dubbed Tunnels of Aggression, were first discovered in 1974 after North Korean defectors warned the South of their existence. The defectors claimed North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung had ordered the tunnels built in an effort to possibly invade the South with one tunnel supposedly capable of funneling 30,000 troops per hour, according to The New York Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are reportedly pushing for diplomacy, while national security adviser H.R. McMaster is encouraging a “bloody nose” strategy involving a minor military strike rather than a full-out conflict.

[Newsweek]

Initial outcome of North Korea-South Korea meeting

The rival Koreas moved toward reducing their bitter animosity Tuesday during rare talks, with North Korea agreeing to take part in next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. The countries also agreed to hold more discussions on easing tension along their border and to reopen a military hotline.

The first meeting of its kind between the nations in about two years was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea following a year of escalating tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs.

Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North. In comments that appeared to back up those critical views, chief North Korean delegate Ri Son Gwon said his country’s nuclear weapons are aimed at the United States, not South Korea.

Despite Ri’s comments, the agreements were still seen to be a positive move. Chief South Korean delegate Cho Myoung-gyon described the accords as a “first step toward the development of South-North relations” when he briefed reporters about the meeting.

In another key accord Tuesday, North Korea also agreed to hold military talks aimed at reducing animosity along the border and restore a military hotline communication channel with South Korea, according to Cho. All major inter-Korean communication channels had been shut down over the North’s nuclear program in recent years. But North Korea reopened one channel last week as signs emerged of improving ties.

[AP]

Christian life in North Korea

While the capital Pyongyang does boast several churches, these buildings are essentially empty shells used to sell foreign visitors a vision of religious tolerance. Instead Christians throughout North Korea are forced to practice in secret.

Kim Sang-Hwa, whose name has been changed for her own safety, is a North Korean defector now living in South Korea, told Open Doors: “Our house was very small, so we all slept in the same room. When I was about 6, I saw my father and mother under the blanket and I could hear the soft noise of the radio. Later I learned they were listening to a broadcast from a Christian radio station.

“In our house was a hidden closet. When I was 12, I accidentally found it. I started to feel inside the cabinet with my hand and I felt a book. I pulled it out, opened the Bible and began to read the first chapter of Genesis. …From that point on Ms Kim became a practicing Christian, albeit in absolute secrecy.

She said: “Sometimes my father met people in a secret location. Among the people visiting the secret meetings were some non-believers too, even spies.

“When one of those visitors was dying, my father went to see him on his death bed. He confessed ‘I know everything about you, your family and your faith. I was a spy and ordered to watch you. You are a good man. I never told anyone you were a Christian. Tell me how I can become a Christian too.’”

[Express (UK)]

North Korea accepts South’s offer to meet for talks

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year’s Day speech that he was prepared to “melt the frozen north-south relations,” to allow contacts with South Koreans and to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.

US President Trump has tweeted that this would not have happened had he not been “firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.” He may be partly right. The single most important factor driving the North Koreans to this decision was probably economic distress.

President Trump’s unpredictability may also have contributed to Pyongyang’s decision. When United Nations Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman visited Pyongyang from December 5 through 8, the North Koreans asked him repeatedly how decisions were made in Washington. They are nervous that the United States is now behaving in ways that they cannot predict and are probably anxious at President Trump’s talk of military action.

Perhaps the immediate trigger was the announcement on December 19 by President Moon Jae-In of South Korea that he had asked the US military to postpone the annual joint US-South Korean exercises until after the Winter Olympics. The North Koreans hate these exercises and have often tried to get them postponed, reduced or canceled, so this may have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. They acted quickly, meeting South Korean officials secretly right at the end of December.

Person-to-person talks between North and South Korea are scheduled to be held next Tuesday — the day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday — at the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.

[CNN]

Kim Jong Un overture could drive wedge between South Korea and USA

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, presented a canny new strategy to initiate direct talks with South Korea in the hope of driving a wedge into its seven-decade alliance with the United States.

Perhaps sensing the simmering tension between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Kim called for an urgent dialogue between the two Koreas before the opening of the Winter Olympics in the South next month.

The strained relationship between the allies has been playing out for months, as Mr. Moon, a liberal, argued for economic and diplomatic openings with the North, even as Mr. Trump has worked hard to squeeze the North with increasingly punishing sanctions. Mr. Moon also angered Mr. Trump and his aides in recent months by suggesting he holds what he called a veto over any American pre-emptive military action against the North’s nuclear program.

Until now Mr. Kim has largely ignored Mr. Moon, whom the North Korean media has portrayed as a spineless lackey of the United States. Kim now sees an opportunity to develop and accentuate the split between Mr. Moon and Mr. Trump, betting that the United States will be unable to mount greater pressure on the North if it does not have South Korean acquiescence. The gambit may work. Hours after Mr. Kim’s speech, Mr. Moon’s office welcomed the North’s proposal, in a way that could further aggravate tensions with the United States.

As part of the overture, Mr. Kim also agreed to a request by Mr. Moon to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics. The South Korean president is betting that the North is far less likely to disrupt the Olympics, with missile launchings or an act of terrorism, if North Korean athletes are competing.

[New York Times]

The nuclear war tweet heard around the world

The U.S. President ignited a stunning new showdown with North Korea late Tuesday, as Donald Trump boasted to volatile leader Kim Jong Un that he had a “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear weapon.

Trump’s flippant comments about his nuclear prowess — akin to “mine is bigger than yours” schoolyard taunts — raise new questions about whether the President has thought deeply about the awesome destructive power at his command.

His outburst also elevates Kim, leader of an impoverished autocracy using a nuclear program to ensure its survival, to a tit-for-tat confrontation alongside the President of the United States.

“Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” Trump tweeted. The tweet was remarkable not just for its content but for the fact it was generated by a President, the holder of the office that for decades has been the effective guarantor of a US-enforced 70-year era of global peace. Before Trump, no US President has made such public and cavalier threats.

Trump’s gambit is all the more risky since it is likely to alienate US allies, anger key world powers like Russia and China that Washington needs to resolve the standoff and because no one knows how the unpredictable Kim will respond.

“To call it juvenile would be an insult to children,” retired Adm. John Kirby, a former State Department and Pentagon spokesman told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday. “I do think in the halls of the Pentagon and the State Department, there has got to be a lot of concern over this, because he is the President of the United States. His tweets are going to be taken as official policy,” said Kirby, now a CNN analyst. “There is no question they are going to lead to miscalculation and confusion over there.”

[CNN]

UN adopts new tougher sanctions on North Korea

The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a new set of draconian US-drafted sanctions on North Korea that will further strangle its energy supplies and tighten restrictions on smuggling and the use of North Korean workers overseas.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed that the new sanctions, levied in response to Pyongyang’s November 29 ballistic missile test, went even further than sanctions passed in September that, at the time, were called the toughest yet. “Today, we cut deeper,” Haley said. She said the UN had repeatedly offered Pyongyang a choice and repeatedly, in its continued missile tests, the regime had “chosen the path of isolation.”

Hailing the unity of the Security Council vote and referring to leader Kim Jong Un, Haley said that, “we will continue to match the Kim regime’s choice of aggressive action with actions of international sanctions.” North Korea, she said, is “this most tragic example of evil in the modern world.”

Resolution 2397 cuts exports of gasoline, diesel and other refined oil products by a total of 89%, Haley said. The resolution also bans exports of industrial equipment, machinery, transportation vehicles and industrial metals to North Korea. It requires countries using North Korean laborers to send them back home no later than 24 months from the adoption of the resolution. The resolution also requires countries to stop ships from illegally providing oil to North Korea through ship-to-ship transfers and prohibits them from smuggling North Korean coal and other prohibited commodities by sea.

[CNN]