Tensions With North Korea A Messaging Balancing Act For U.S.

You might think alarm bells would be sounding in Washington, given the warnings in North Korea: war is coming, foreign embassies should be evacuated. But when they talk about North Korea, United States officials are sounding like an exasperated parent responding to a child’s tantrum.

At the White House on Friday, spokesman Jay Carney said the United States “would not be surprised” if North Korea actually carries out a missile test.

“We have seen them launch missiles in the past, and the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly condemned them as violations of the North’s obligations under numerous Security Council resolutions, and it would fit their current pattern of bellicose, unhelpful, and unconstructive rhetoric and actions,” Carney said.

If the North Koreans do launch a missile, the U.S. would have to decide whether or not to shoot it down. On the eve of a launch in 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. forces would do so only if the missile was headed toward U.S. territory.

After the North Koreans shelled a South Korean military base in 2010, however, U.S. and South Korean leaders resolved to respond more aggressively to such incidents in the future. They drew up what they called a counter-provocation plan, and this year they knew the plan might be put to a test.

A Delicate Balance

The U.S. and South Korea stage joint military exercises every year around this time and North Korea always gets upset. This year, there’s a new leader in the North, determined to make an impression. So the U.S. and South Korea decided it was important to “signal” their readiness to respond to hostile action and the exercises included an especially dramatic show of force, including stealth bombers.

The reaction from the North has been especially aggressive.

Gen. Walter Sharp, until last year the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, says the whole sequence of events shows how challenging it is to deal with all the demands, contingencies and the risks on the Korean peninsula.

“That’s why there’s been a lot of effort over the past two and a half years now to build this counter-provocation plan,” Sharp says. He says it’s a hard of a strong response: don’t escalate, but be prepared to go to war.

U.S. officials, say the counter-provocation plan and the U.S. show of force send three separate messages: the South Koreans see the U.S. military is standing behind them; the North Koreans find out what they’d face were they to start something; and China sees how high the stakes are and why it may need to rein North Korea in.

An Immediate Reaction

If the North Koreans launched even a limited artillery strike against the south — like what they did in 2010 — Gen. Sharp says, South Korean troops would fire back instantly.

“I mean, that is immediate,” he says. “Literally, as artillery is coming in on you, you want artillery going back, to try to take out what’s taking you out.”

The idea here is self-defense.

If North Korea were then to escalate, Presidents Obama in Washington and Park Geun-Hye in the Republic of Korea would decide how to respond.

“There are options that people have worked and thought through that could very quickly be brought to President Park and President Obama,” Sharp says.

That’s the escalation scenario, and it leads to all out war.

So now that the show of force and resolve signals have been sent, it’s time for another message: that war should be avoided.

“We have no specific information to suggest an imminent threat to U.S. citizens or facilities in the [Republic of Korea],” said State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, reassuring Americans by reading a statement from the U.S. Embassy in the Republic of Korea. “So the goal there was to be calming, obviously.”

That message, to calm down, coming at what seems like an especially dangerous moment, was likely meant to be heard on all sides.

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