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.