Tensions Update II
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.