The Pentagon said Monday that it was moving a guided-missile destroyer and a sea-based radar platform near North Korea's coastline to respond to any aggressive acts by the communist state, even as the White House said no changes have been detected in the regime's military posture despite its warlike threats.
Still, U.S. officials said it was "prudent" to move the USS John S. McCain, which can intercept missiles, and the SBX-1, an oil rig-like radar, to the region a day after two F-22 stealth fighter jets for the first time took part in ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
The greatest danger on the divided Korean Peninsula, according to regional analysts, is that an accident or miscalculation by one side inadvertently escalates into all-out war.
Neither side wants such a conflagration, but with the North's forces on a hair trigger and the South's new rules of engagement, the danger of an accidental war is high, military analysts say."The potential for an escalatory spiral is very real," said Bruce Bennett, a scholar with the Rand Corp. of Santa Monica, Calif., a think tank with historic ties to the U.S. military.
On Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un opened the annual spring parliamentary session of the Supreme People's Assembly in the capital, Pyongyang, after weeks of issuing threats against South Korea and the U.S. Top Communist Party officials earlier declared nuclear weapons "the nation's life" and one of the North's most valuable assets.
Last week, Mr. Kim — a third-generation dictator — placed his nation's forces on high alert after the highly publicized participation of two U.S. B-2 stealth bombers in the military exercises.
"It's a hair trigger," military intelligence analyst John McCreary said of North Korea's military posture.
But White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the Obama administration had not detected any changes in the North's military readiness.
Defense officials announced last month that they were increasing the number of missile interceptors in Alaska and adding a radar in Japan in response to North Korean threats of missile strikes against the U.S. mainland.
"The actions we've taken are prudent, and they include, on missile defense to enhance both the homeland and allied security, and other actions like the B-2 and B-52 flights have been important steps to reassure our allies, demonstrate our resolve to the North, and reduce pressure on Seoul to take unilateral action," Mr. Carney said Monday. "And we believe this has reduced the chance of miscalculation and provocation."
At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland echoed his comments and said that North Korea will figure prominently in talks between regional leaders and Secretary of State John F. Kerry when he visits Northeast Asia next week.
Ms. Nuland stopped short of saying that Mr. Kerry intends to push Beijing to take a more aggressive posture toward Pyongyang, but she noted that "Beijing has the most leverage, given their intensive trade relationship" with North Korea.Pyongyang has been outraged over U.N. sanctions imposed last month for its third illegal nuclear test in February.
It has cut telephone hotlines to the South, said it has scrapped the cease-fire deal that ended fighting in the Korean War in 1953 and last week declared it is in a state of war with Seoul.Mr. McCreary, the military intelligence analyst, said North Korea's military doctrine, like that of the Soviet army on which it is modeled, is "launch on tactical warning."
That means North Koreans likely will start shooting if they see what they consider to be unambiguous signs of an imminent attack from South Korean military preparations, such as the loading of live ammunition or the activation of wartime communications networks.
"The problem is that so much depends on the quality of their intelligence. We don't know how clearly they can see and we don't know how accurately they interpret what they see," Mr. McCreary said, adding that a slight accident or miscalculation could erupt into warfare.
Bruce Bechtol, an associate professor at Angelo State University in Texas and a Korea scholar, said the North's young leader lacks the experience, the skill and the judgment of his father and grandfather.
"That is what makes escalation more likely," he said.
Western intelligence agencies believe North Korea has as many as a dozen nuclear weapons but lacks the technology to miniaturize them to fit into warheads. But the North also has medium- and long-range conventional missiles that could hit U.S. forces in South Korea, on the Japanese islands and perhaps even Guam.
Meanwhile, an agreement announced last week between U.S. and South Korean forces governs how the allies would respond to a North Korean provocation, such as the shelling of South Korean islands on the disputed maritime border or the sinking of a South Korean warship by a Northern submarine — both of which happened in 2010 and killed 50 people.
Mr. Bennett of the Rand Corp., noting the muted response of the South Korean military at the time, said "2010 was an important turning point."
The South's military changed its rules of engagement afterward and "will escalate" in response to a provocation, he said. "They will likely go after not just the [North Korean] attacking units, but their logistics lines and the command and control elements in the rear."
The new deal with the U.S. military also lowers the bar for escalation, he said, because the U.S. is now committed to join any subsequent response if the North retaliates against the South.
"The South Koreans feel by [upping their own response and drawing the United States in more quickly] they are deterring the North," Mr. Bennett said.Guy Taylor and Susan Crabtree contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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