- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The greatest danger on the divided Korean Peninsula, where bellicose nuclear rhetoric from the North and muscle-flexing joint military exercises by Washington and Seoul in the South have ratcheted tension to a fever pitch, is that an accident or miscalculation inadvertently could escalate into an all-out war, according to the general commanding U.S. military forces there.

With North Korean rhetoric at such a high level, and given Pyongyang’s history of military provocations against its southern neighbor, Gen. James Thurman said his greatest fear is “a miscalculation. An impulsive decision that causes a kinetic provocation.”

Gen. Thurman, who leads the 28,500 American military troops based in South Korea and also serves as the commander of United Nations Command, granted an exclusive interview to ABC News on Tuesday.

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He said he could not discount North Korean rhetoric as mere fist-shaking. Asked if he thought threats to attack the United States were empty, Gen. Thurman said: “No, I don’t think that they are. We’ve got to take every threat seriously.”

His response also indicated the dilemma that a small-scale North Korean military provocation, such as a cross- border exchange of fire, might pose for U.S. and South Korean commanders.

“We will defend ourselves,” he said. “We don’t want to respond to some type of deceptive move into a rapid escalation into a conflict. … My job is to prevent war.”

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There can be little doubt that the North Korean leadership does not want a war either.

Such a conflagration undoubtedly would destroy the North Korean regime and kill tens of thousands, or more probably hundreds of thousands, on both sides of the border.

But with Pyongyang’s forces on a hair trigger, and changed rules of engagement and response south of the border, the danger of an accidental war is very real, military analysts agree.

“The potential for an escalatory spiral [into accidental war] is very real,” said Bruce Bennett, a scholar with the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank with historic ties to the U.S. military.

Foal Eagle, the U.S. military’s annual two-month-long joint exercise with South Korean forces that continues until the end of the month, underlines the ease with which the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula could be drawn into any wide-scale conflict.

Worse, North Korea is believed by Western intelligence agencies to have as many as a dozen nuclear weapons, although it is not thought they have the technology to miniaturize them to fit into warheads, and they have medium- and long-range conventional missiles, which could hit U.S. forces deployed in South Korea, on the Japanese islands and perhaps even Guam.

Last week, North Korea’s third-generation hereditary dictator and untested 30-something military supremo, Kim Jong-un, put the nation’s artillery and rocket forces and the rest of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) at their highest alert.

“It’s a hair trigger,” veteran military intelligence analyst and Korea-watcher John McCreary told The Washington Times.

The military doctrine of the KPA, like that of the Soviet army it is modeled on, is “launch on tactical warning,” he said.

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