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March 30, 2013

Analysis: North Korea threat may be more bark than bite

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — 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.

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.

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