Tensions Update II

August 21, 2015 12:00 PM

Friday August 21 (as of noon Eastern time): The major development overnight was the revelation of a Central Military Commission meeting on Thursday chaired by Kim Jong Un and the issuing of a 48-hour ultimatum (5PM Saturday South Korea time, 4:30PM North Korea time, 4AM Saturday East Coast Time) on shutting down South Korean broadcasts from speakers placed along the DMZ. The threat was accompanied by standard “war footing” language, but also the movement of some long-range artillery toward the border according to the ROK Ministry of Defense. There is no evidence yet of a broader mobilization of armored and mechanized units that could trigger counter-mobilization or even pre-emption. (Most comprehensive English-language coverage is NKNews).

The calculated risk on the North Korean side is that South will not back down. Given the precise nature of the demand, this could be an “emperor with no clothes” moment for the Young General. On the other hand, the threat could be carried out by a wide variety of asymmetric moves that would put difficult decisions about retaliation and escalation back to the South; limited shelling into unpopulated areas, moves along the Northern Limit Line, small-arms attacks in the DMZ, more targeted attacks on the loudspeakers.

In this game, the US plays a complicated role. We argued yesterday that the coincidence of the mine attack with the onset of exercises may have created nervousness in the North; the leadership might have bought its own narrative that the exercises constituted a threat. The more likely possibility is that the manufactured crisis allowed for the misbegotten PR stunt of raising the exercises to the UN Security Council. On the other hand—despite the temptation to send a short, sharp and costly signal--the US is obviously not interested in seeing the situation escalate and is probably urging restraint.

The deadline gives us a precise moment to watch: 4AM Saturday East Coast time.

Comments

Bruce Klingner

4:30 a.m EST -- don't forget to take into account the 30 minute differential from the new Pyongyang time zone. ;-) I fly to Seoul Sunday. I can tweet while cowering under the bed.

Liars N. Fools

We are actually seeing a coincidence of "face" issues for Kim Jong Un. In addition to Bruce Klingner's visit to Seoul, there is the Park Geun-hye visit to Beijing and the snub to Kim echoes what amounts to the same atmosphere as in Moscow where if Kim had appeared he would have been secondary or tertiary or even a freak show. Then UFG shows that Kim gets no respect from the U.S.-ROK alliance. Lots of people in Seoul have been expecting a cycle of provocations ever since May when Kim did not go to Moscow, indicating that the North was not in fact making much headway trying to leverage Moscow to influence or at least demonstrate some freedom of maneuver from China.

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