SEOUL – Winter drills on either side of the demilitarized zone underscore the fragility of a potential thaw between North Korea and South Korea after Kim Jong Un raised the possibility of a summit.
In a snowy valley 150 km (93 miles) east of Seoul, South Korean commandos in white camouflage rappel 30 feet (10 meters) from a Black Hawk helicopter, detonating a bomb in an “enemy” building before wading through an ice-covered river. Annual extreme-weather drills are also being held by North Korean troops across the heavily fortified border that bisects the peninsula.
“This operation is aimed at striking essential enemy facilities,” South Korean Maj. Jeong Sung-wan said at the exercises on Jan. 8, his face covered in black-and-white camouflage paint as smoke rose from the bombed building behind him. “With enough training, we will blow up any enemy facility in any given mission no matter what the cost is.”
A Pyongyang envoy said on Thursday that joint military exercises by South Korea and the United States this week are “an open challenge” to North Korea’s demand to ease tension. So Se Pyong, ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, also warned that a continued standoff with Seoul and Washington could lead to confrontation, a “second Korean War.”
The mention by Kim in his New Year’s speech of a possible summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye has done little to ease military tensions between two countries that remain technically at war more than 60 years after outright conflict ceased. Even as Park says she is open to meeting Kim without preconditions for talks, South Korea has warned his regime is building a network of infiltration posts and progressing on miniaturizing nuclear warheads.
“Any future negotiations between the two countries will be fraught with difficulty in removing impediments to detente, and rapprochement remains a long shot,” Moody’s Investors Service Senior Vice President Tom Byrne and associate analyst Shirin Mohammadi said in an emailed statement on Jan. 8.
Backed by treaty ally the U.S., which has 28,500 troops based in the country, South Korea has budgeted 1.2 trillion won ($1.1 billion) this year to build a command system that will help its military carry out first strikes. It plans to buy 40 radar-evading F-35 fighters from Lockheed Martin Corp. under a defense budget that rose 5 percent from last year to 37.5 trillion won, one-tenth the nation’s entire spending.
Kim’s remarks on a potential summit with South Korea — there has been no meeting of leaders since 2007 — came as he completed three years in power, having consolidated his grip by purging and executing top officials including his uncle and one-time deputy Jang Song Thaek. He inherited a military with 1.2 million men under arms and oversaw the country’s third successful test of a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. blamed his regime for the November cyberattack on Sony Corp. to try to block the release of “The Interview,” a comedy film that envisions a plot to assassinate Kim.
North Korea has denied involvement in the hacking even as the U.S. announced fresh sanctions. The film quickly pulled in more than $31 million in online sales.
In his speech, Kim pledged to bolster North Korea’s war- fighting capabilities, including the development of nuclear arms. Since last month he has visited infantry, artillery and air force units conducting drills, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. KCNA on Jan. 11 called South Korea’s special forces drills “subversive and terrorist acts.”
The South Korean exercises will last through February, when the military begins preparing for annual Key Resolve exercises with the U.S. North Korea calls the spring drills a rehearsal for invasion while the U.S. says they are defensive in nature.
“Painting us as an enemy that’s about to invade their country any day now is one of the chief propaganda elements that’s held North Korea together for the past 60 years,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Jan. 7 at Fordham University in New York, recalling his November dinner with Kim Yong Chol, head of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, when he flew to Pyongyang to secure the release of two detained Americans.
“Gen. Kim spent most of the meal berating me about American aggression and what terrible people we were,” Clapper said. “He got louder and louder, and he kept leaning toward me, pointing his finger at my chest and saying that U.S. and South Korean exercises were a provocation to war.”
KCNA said Jan. 10 the country could suspend further nuclear tests if the U.S. stopped its drills with South Korea. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the offer “inappropriate” and said in an emailed statement that another test would violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.
In February 2013, just weeks before the Key Resolve exercises began, North Korea held its third nuclear test and threatened to carry out nuclear strikes on the U.S. and South Korea. The allies do not believe the North can yet tip its long- range missiles with nuclear warheads.
“There are many exit ramps off North Korea’s diplomatic highway: Pyongyang can scuttle the idea if concessions are not sufficient or if sanctions or other actions are deemed unacceptable,” said Patrick Cronin, senior adviser for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, referring to a potential summit.
“If and when the diplomatic path falters, as history suggests it will, then it will be time to apply military muscle,” Cronin said by email. “Cyber, missile and nuclear forces, and special forces are all part of the asymmetric tool kit at Kim’s disposal.”
The 2007 summit between then-President Roh Moo-hyun and Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, produced pledges to cooperate that failed to take shape, as South Korea’s next leader, Lee Myung-bak, tied large-scale food aid to North Korea moving toward nuclear disarmament.
In 2010 North Korea fired artillery at a South Korean island and killed two marines, sending tensions soaring and prompting Lee to vow airstrikes in the event of another attack.
Easing tensions could offer a potential peace dividend to companies positioned to benefit from business with North Korea such as Hyundai Merchant Marine Co., the largest stakeholder in Hyundai Asan, which operated cross-border tours. The company’s shares jumped 7 percent, the biggest advance in two months, the day after Kim’s speech.