AP reports that US "defense officials" are concerned about satellite imagery indicating a second North Korean nuclear test. The US "nuclear envoy," Mr. Christopher Hill, says that such a test would be a "very belligerent answer" to the UN's recent very stern letter (as "Hans Brix" in Team America, World Police, would put it), to Ronery Comrade Kim. You don't say, Mr. Hill ?
Spook 86, over at In From the Cold has a good discussion of the Kim Jong Il government's fulminations about the UN action being an "act of war." Spook points out that the North Korean regime uses such language all the time, and points out that even though a limited attack on the Republic of Korea could be launched with little or no warning, organizing a real invasion would take some preparation. Spook warns that, for this reason, careful observation of the upcoming North Korean military Winter Training Cycle is important:
That's why North Korea's upcoming Winter Training Cycle (WTC) will be very interesting--and potentially important, at least from a military perspective. It should be noted upfront that there are currently no indications that Pyongyang is contemplating an invasion of the south. . .However, the WTC is significant because it's the time of year when the DPRK military conducts most of its training, and North Korean units typically reach their highest levels of readiness. The WTC usually begins in late November or early December and runs through March. Using a building-block approach, North Korean units usually start off the training cycle with individual and small-unit training, then shifting to larger-scale exercises in January and February. North Korea's WTC often culminates with a national-level exercise in the late winter. After that, much of the military shifts to agricultural projects, and training levels plummet.(emphasis supplied).
Spook points out that overall North Korean readiness has fallen over the past twenty years, primarily due to that country's collapsing economy. Spook goes on to discuss clues we might look for that would indicate the North Koreans are making serious military preparations to make good on the Dear Leader's blusterings about war. Read the whole thing.
The points Spook makes are well-taken, but caution is in order. North Korea is sometimes described as the Hermit Kingdom for good reason -- there is very little reliable, human intelligence, and we are excessively dependant on communications and other forms of technical intelligence for information. The difficulties the US and other governments have encountered in confirming that a NK nuclear test even took place speaks volumes about the difficulties of obtaining accurate information. North Korea is extremely mountainous, and the area around the DMZ full of bunkers and tunnels. The South Koreans, Japanese and Chinese almost certainly have better human intelligence, but Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing also have their own agendas.
The North Koreans are aware of our reliance on technical intelligence. Surely their war planning takes that into account. The possibility thus exists that North Korean war preparations would not be detected. Remember, the First Korean War, in 1950, began with a surprise invasion.
The General Staff Bureau's Operations Department is also aware, or should be, that South Korea is somewhat divided on how to respond to the nuke crisis. The South Korean administration's foreign affairs flagship is its "sunshine" policy of friendliness towards North Korea. Since the NK's in effect slapped South Korea in the face by setting off its nuke, President Roh Moo-huyn and his administation have been taking a lot of heat. Now, it looks like the Roh government wants to pretend that nothing has happened. (Hat tip: One Free Korea; see also DPRK Studies).
Certainly the North Koreans know too, that the US military is, well, a little busy just now. The Bush administration also looks pretty weak.
Finally, the North Koreans have managed to, at the least, seriously annoy the Chinese, who provide the lion's share of North Korea's food, fuel, and military equipment. Now before the North Koreans went nuclear testing, presumably God-Emperor Kim did his sums, and concluded that China would be upset, and a bit irritated, but would not do much. Maybe he's right.
Whatever China does, other than posturing, will, in all probability, not be made public. Chester over at Adventures of Chester agrees with me that the Chinese may be thinking that a coup d'etat to get rid of the Kim dynasty is in order: that the Korean Workers Party seriously needs an enema. Kim Jong Il may be a sociopath, but he's far from stupid, and this possibility has to have occurred to him as well. Look for a party purge.
Kim had to have thought about all this, and tried to insure against it. I think Richardson at DPRK Studies is probably right, and that the operational objective here was to secure the cult-regime's isolation from the outside world. But just suppose the Pope of the Juche Idea (or, of course, one of his underlings), was fallible on China ? As DPRK Studies discusses, a lot of Chinese are Not Happy. China was taking out some Korean Disaster Insurance even before this test, DPRK Studies says, fencing the common border so that starving Koreans from the latest Upper Volta With Nukes don't decamp to China. What are the Chinese really thinking now ? If Cousin Kim has managed to cut off his Chinese grain, oil and guns, how does he plan on getting through the winter ?
Something like this has happened before. On 26 July 1941, in response to Japan's occupation of southern French Indochina (a/k/a South Vietnam) -- Franklin D. Roosevelt froze Japan's financial assets in the United States and used US influence to block Japanese oil purchases in the Dutch East Indies. The US government expected that the economic squeeze would convince the Japanese to change their foreign policies. The Japanese decided to simply go take the oil they wanted. . .Pearl Harbor and US entry into World War II resulted.
What if Cousin Kim has really screwed up ? One way out of such a cul-de-sac would be to loot South Korea. . .
I don't, yet, believe that there is going to be a war. But the possibility cannot be dismissed too easily.