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Analysts say it’s time for China to get tough on its ally.
Calum MacLeod and Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
March 26, 2013
North Korea threat
North Korea, which has missiles capable of hitting U.S. territories in the Pacific and possibly mainland USA, has ordered its rocket and long-range artillery units to be combat ready after joint military drills by U.S. and South Korean forces. A look at the Koreas and the military presence and threat:
China may be reaching the point that it may have to take concrete steps to calm its ally North Korea, which on Tuesday threatened strikes targeting Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, analysts say. China’s foreign policy team under recently installed President Xi Jinping “could be more tough on North Korea, as they are more irresponsible in their rhetoric and that will hurt China’s interests,” said Shen Dingli, an international relations expert and North Korea watcher at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
“We have to teach North Korea a lesson, but not to further the trend of instability spiraling. We need to punish them, without exciting them,” he said.
North Korea on Tuesday said it was putting its long-range rocket units on the highest possible combat-posture level following what is says are provocations from the United States.
The U.S. military and the South Korean military have been conducting regularly scheduled drills on land this month. The Pentagon says at least one B-52 bomber was flown over South Korea.
NORTH KOREA PROVOCATIONS: The North has attacked many times over decades
On Tuesday, the North Korean army’s Supreme Command said it will take “practical military action” to protect national sovereignty and its leadership in response to what it called U.S. and South Korean plots to attack.
“From this moment, the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army will be putting in combat duty posture No. 1 all field artillery units including long-range artillery units strategic rocket units that will target all enemy object in U.S. invasionary bases,” the KCNA news agency said.
The North Korean military statement referred to the B-52 flights as a provocation. The Pentagon said it is confident that it can handle any military capabilities that the regime of Kim Jong Un can come up with.
“The U.S. is fully capable of defending ourselves and our allies against an attack” by North Korea, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Jack Miller said. “We are firmly committed to defending the Republic of Korea and Japan.”
The Pentagon and South Korean military on Friday signed a new plan to defend the country against possible attack. The plan was developed after North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, killing four people and destroying dozens of homes.
The North Korean statement came on the third anniversary of a North Korean torpedo attack on a South Korean warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors. North Korea denies the warship sinking.
The two Koreas have clashed repeatedly in recent years and North Korea has vowed in the past to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” North Korea has expressed anger over recent joint military drills by the U.S. and South Korea and crippling United Nations-endorsed sanctions in the wake of the North’s Feb. 12 nuclear test.
The United States and its allies should respond to the latest North Korean threats by urging China to restrain its ally before the situation escalates, a former U.S. intelligence official says.
U.S. diplomats should talk to their Chinese counterparts and say “your ally North Korea is acting in a very belligerent and destabilizing way,” said Richard Bush, an East Asia specialist at the National Intelligence Council under President Clinton who now heads the Brookings Institution Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. “They’re acting in ways that are contrary to the principals you (China) have laid out. The situation is somewhat dangerous. You need to restrain your ally.”
The country has made nuclear threats against the U.S. and its allies in the past. But North Korea doesn’t have the capability to strike U.S. bases in Hawaii, Guam or the U.S. mainland with long-range missiles, says James Hardy, Asia Pacific Editor for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.
“From what we know of its existing inventory, North Korea has short- and medium-range missiles that could complicate a situation on the Korean Peninsula and perhaps reach Japan,” he said.
“They’re empty threats,” Bush said.
However, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said the risk to the U.S. is that the North is an irrational regime capable of starting a war that could drag in the United States.
“It shows why the continuation of the regime itself is a problem” he told Fox News “You have to take this kind of thing seriously.”
Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who served under President George W, Bush, says the Obama administration needs to work toward a more robust missile-defense system and do more to implement U.S. policy, which is to change the North’s regime by a peaceful reunification of the two Koreas.
While North Korea is unlikely to launch a nuclear attack, it may conduct a limited conventional one at South Korea that could lead to an escalating series of retaliations that could get out of hand, Bush said. That’s because South Korea’s new president, Park Geun Hye, declared her country’s new policy is to respond to such attacks in the future by destroying the units that launched the attack.
“But a retaliation of the kind South Korea is contemplating increases the risk that North Korea would counter-retaliate,” Bush said,. “It has the potential of an escalatory vicious circle. That’s something the USA, South Korea and China understand.”
China is the North’s only significant ally, and major supplier of fuel and food, but several Chinese academics have called on Beijing in recent months to adopt a tougher stance due to Pyongyang’s utter disregard for Chinese concerns over its nuclear and long-range missile programs.
The North’s recent threats are seen partly by some experts as efforts to strengthen internal loyalty to young leader Kim Jong Un and to build up his military credentials.
Kim “needs to show he has the guts. The best way to do that is to use the military might that he commands,” said Lee Yoon Gyu, a North Korea expert at Korea National Defense University in Seoul. “This paves the way for greater praise for him if North Korea makes a provocation later and claims victory.”
China’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Tuesday for all sides in the Korean peninsula to exercise restraint. The threats “are nothing new, they just want attention,” said Shen at Fudan University. “The U.S. is ready to intercept any incoming missiles anyway. Don’t let North Korea think that their threats get any reward,” or they will threaten more, he said.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London, Associated Press