Analysis: NKorea threat may be more bark than bite

Saturday - 3/30/2013, 6:10am EDT

University students punch the air as they march through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, March 29, 2013. Tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for the mass rally at the main square in Pyongyang in support of their leader Kim Jong Un's call to arms. Placards read: “Let’s crush the puppet traitor group” and “Let’s rip the puppet traitors to death!” (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

JEAN H. LEE
Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Across North Korea, soldiers are gearing up for battle and shrouding their jeeps and vans with camouflage netting. Newly painted signboards and posters call for "death to the U.S. imperialists" and urge the people to fight with "arms, not words."

But even as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is issuing midnight battle cries to his generals to ready their rockets, he and his million-man army know full well that a successful missile strike on U.S. targets would be suicide for the outnumbered, out-powered North Korean regime.

Despite the hastening drumbeat of warfare -- seemingly bringing the region to the very brink of conflict with threats and provocations -- Pyongyang aims to force Washington to the negotiating table, pressure the new president in Seoul to change policy on North Korea, and build unity inside the country without triggering a full-blown war.

North Korea wants to draw attention to the tenuousness of the armistice designed to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula, a truce Pyongyang recently announced it would no longer honor as it warned that war could break out at any time.

In July, it will be 60 years since North Korea and China signed an armistice with the U.S. and the United Nations to bring an end to three years of fighting that cost millions of lives. The designated Demilitarized Zone has evolved into the most heavily guarded border in the world.

It was never intended to be a permanent border. But six decades later, North and South remain divided, with Pyongyang feeling abandoned by the South Koreans in the quest for reunification and threatened by the Americans.

In that time, South Korea has blossomed from a poor, agrarian nation of peasants into the world's 15th largest economy while North Korea is struggling to find a way out of a Cold War chasm that has left it with a per capita income on par with sub-Saharan Africa.

The Chinese troops who fought alongside the North Koreans have long since left. But 28,500 American troops are still stationed in South Korea and 50,000 more are in nearby Japan. For weeks, the U.S. and South Korea have been showing off their military might with a series of joint exercises that Pyongyang sees a rehearsal for invasion.

On Thursday, the U.S. military confirmed that those drills included two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers that can unload the U.S. Air Force's largest conventional bomb -- a 30,000-pound super bunker buster -- powerful enough to destroy North Korea's web of underground military tunnels.

It was a flexing of military muscle by Washington, perhaps aimed not only at Pyongyang but at Beijing as well.

In Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un reacted swiftly, calling an emergency meeting of army generals and ordering them to be prepared to strike if the U.S. actions continue. A photo distributed by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency showed Kim in a military operations room with maps detailing a "strike plan" behind him in a very public show of supposedly sensitive military strategy.

The head of Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that North Korea's aggressive rhetoric is "not completely new," citing past provocations.

"To sum up: we assume that North Korea does not want a war," Gerhard Schindler was quoted as saying.

North Korea cites the U.S. military threat as a key reason behind its need to build nuclear weapons, and has poured a huge chunk of its small national budget into defense, science and technology. In December, scientists launched a satellite into space on the back of a long-range rocket using technology that could easily be converted for missiles; in February, they tested an underground nuclear device as part of a mission to build a bomb they can load on a missile capable of reaching the U.S.

However, what North Korea really wants is legitimacy in the eyes of the U.S. -- and a peace treaty. Pyongyang wants U.S. troops off Korean soil, and the bombs and rockets are more of an expensive, dangerous safety blanket than real firepower. They are the only real playing card North Korea has left, and the bait they hope will bring the Americans to the negotiating table.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said North Korea's "bellicose rhetoric" would only deepen its international isolation, and that the U.S. has both the capability and willingness to defend its interests in the region.

Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, isn't convinced North Korea is capable of attacking Guam, Hawaii or the U.S. mainland. He says Pyongyang hasn't successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile.