As have been explained elsewhere in this dossier North Korea is flexing its military muscles actively and consciously increasing the risk of a military conflict with South Korea and its allies-small scale or not so small-scale.
As usual in the case of North Korea it remains very difficult or indeed impossible to fully understand the internal North Korean political dynamics, which triggered and continue to sustain the currently very tense and fragile security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, is unclear whether the current escalation was intentional or whether instead North Korea's inexperienced young dictator Kim Jung-un-under internal pressure to present himself as a tough and resolute military leader able and willing to stand up to the 'imperialists in Washington'-got carried away with bellicose rhetoric when responding to UN sanctions and the annual US-South Korean military exercises in the region. In fact, it cannot be excluded that Kim felt the need to be tougher, more irrational and erratic than is father and grandfather and given that he and his entourage spent the last 18 months making sure (through e.g. executions and imprisonment of military and party members not unconditionally loyal to Kim family-style policies and ideologies aimed at securing the self-declared right to govern the country indefinitely) that his power base is not questioned and endorsed by those North Korean well-fed enough not to think about where to get the next warm meal from, the lack of opposition to over-the-top bellicose rhetoric and policies becomes comprehensible.
Intentional or unintentional crisis and escalation or not, the region and the West had-like numerous times in the past-to expect some reaction to sanctions and the annual US-South Korean military training exercise-only this time Pyongyang's reaction to multilateral pressure and punishment is harsher, currently giving the (wrong) impression that a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula is all but inevitable. In reality it is not and by the time of this writing (April 4), there are no unusual North Korean troop movements and no military preparations indicating that Pyongyang is preparing an attack onto South Korea or US military stationed on South Korean territory. To be sure, a North Korean attack executed by the country's artillery stationed along the 38th parallel needs fairly little preparation and it cannot be excluded that the country's artillery and ground forces are under order to respond harshly and immediately to anything resembling more than routine South Korean or US troop movements on the other side of the 38th parallel. For Pyongyang to launch an artillery attack onto the South, however, the political leadership would have to be self-destructive enough to ignore numerous South Korean warnings that any attack-small-scale attacks included-would lead to an immediate and massive South Korean military response, eventually (and with the help of US military) sealing the fate of the regime in Pyongyang for good. And there is today next to no doubt that Seoul would reply immediately with military force to any North Korean attack (other than in 2010 when South Korea decided not to do so after the sinking of a South Korean military vessel and the unprovoked bombing of a South Korean islands.
Pyongyang’s most recent threat to launch a nuclear attack sounds threatening and dangerous on paper, but the country is realistically not able to launch a nuclear attack against anybody as it is verifiably-at not least not yet-able to mount nuclear warheads onto carrier missiles. To be sure, Washington takes that and the other military threats seriously and has on April 4 announced to transfer additional missile defense systems to Guam.
The recently announced resumption of the Pyongyang’s nuclear program too was predictable and (from a North Korean point of view) indeed inevitable in the absence of other political or economic bargaining tools. However, if the strategy was to get the US, South Korea and Japan to 'beg' for bilateral or multilateral negotiations to avoid a North Korean artillery or missile attack, Pyongyang ends up having to re-consider such strategy. Pyongyang giving up its nuclear ambitions and allowing international inspectors (as agreed in 2007 in the so-called ‘Nuclear Agreement’ negotiated in the framework of the since 2009 suspended 6-Party Talks) remain the very precondition for the US and its regional allies to return to the negotiation table (which Pyongyang left when it decided to conduct nuclear and missile tests instead). Hence-at least for now-the more Pyongyang announces to resume its nuclear program, the less it will be able to get the US, South Korea and Japan to offer the resumption of negotiations (if that is what Pyongyang really wants).
What are South Korea, the US and also China charged to do now? While several options of action and non-action are available, the 'do-next-to-nothing' response (scenario 1) is most probably the one preferred in Washington and Seoul-unless of course Pyongyang decided to launch an attack onto South Korea or the US in the weeks ahead.
Scenario 1: Do nothing and ignore North Korean saber-rattling and bellicose rhetoric as much as possible while maintaining armed forces on high enough alert to prepare preparing for the worst with the worst being a small-scale North Korean artillery attack onto South Korean territory. This is pretty much what is already taking place: US and South Korean policymakers-at least for now-limit themselves to warning Pyongyang not to push it too far in view of joint US-South Korean military superiority-the ultimate regime changer (and Pyongyang is aware of that). In other words: don’t give Pyongyang want it wants seems to be what Washington and Seoul have decided to do: attention and the confirmation that Pyongyang is able to challenge Washington and its allies through bellicose rhetoric and policies lacking rationality and the prospects of success.
Scenario 2: US and South Korea sending stronger signals and messages of military strength through further military exercises or/and the redeployment of US forces stationed already stationed in Japan. While it cannot be excluded that Washington and Seoul could choose such option should Pyongyang step up military provocations in the weeks ahead, it could easily turn out to be counterproductive and indeed dangerous if interpreted as an attack onto North Korea. Indeed, judging from the recent past, it is possible that US-driven demonstration of military strength could trigger concrete North Korean military action, which could under the current circumstances escalate into a full-fledged war on the Korean Peninsula. Consequently, unless Pyongyang’s verbal military threats are followed-up by concrete actions and the movements of troops and military material pointing to an immediate attack, Washington and Seoul will most probably continue not to make use of the option of exposing military strength beyond the current level. The above-mentioned stationing of additional missile defense systems on Guam, however, indicates that the US and its allies are nonetheless preparing themselves for a military confrontation provoked and initiated by North Korea.
Scenario 3: Attempting to de-escalate the situation through giving Pyongyang what it seems to want (although we have yet to understand what it really wants in view of the absence of North Korean declarations explaining what it wants to achieve with the military threats): Offers to return to negotiations, in this case bilateral US-North Korean negotiations (something Pyongyang always wanted). Such a concession would without a doubt be celebrated as a (military) military victory over the US and it allies and is hence most probably not featuring on the US North Korea policy agenda. Giving in to North Korean military pressure would set a dangerous precedent sending a signal of weakness to Pyongyang-something Washington and Seoul will want to avoid at all costs.