That means the North will start shooting if they see what they consider to be unambiguous signs of an imminent attack in South Korean military preparations, such as the loading of live ammunition or the activation of wartime communications networks.
“The problem is that means 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,” he said.
That is important because their limited technical intelligence capability leaves Pyongyang “completely in the dark,” for example, in regard to the flight activity of B-2 nuclear-capable stealth bombers that the United States deployed over South Korea last week as well as most U.S. Navy operations, Mr. McCreary, said.
“They have no way to detect the most dangerous weapons with which the United States can attack them, no way to get any warning,” he said of the B-2s. “That is very scary for them.”
“They say they won’t start a war, but that doesn’t mean they won’t shoot first,” said Mr. McCreary, author of the daily open-source intelligence bulletin NightWatch.
U.S. officials insist that their deployments have been “prudent,” in the words of White House spokesman Jay Carney.
A new agreement announced last week between U.S. and South Korean military 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 caused more than a dozen fatalities.
South Korea’s military changed its rules of engagement afterward and no longer would restrict its response in that way, he said.
“They will escalate” in response to a provocation, Mr. Bennett 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.”
South Korean troops have been told “if they are attacked, they can fire back,” he said, “Captains and lieutenant colonels will be making those decisions.”
The new deal with the U.S. military also lowers the bar for possible escalation, he said, in that the U.S. now is committed to join any subsequent response if the North retaliates against the first South Korean response.
“The South Koreans feel by doing that [upping their own response and drawing the United States in more quickly] they are deterring the North,” Mr. Bennett said.
If an incident occurs, “both sides are, to the degree that they have threatened a significant response [to the other and must follow through or lose credibility], pretty well trapped,” he added.
“The dangers of miscalculation are pretty significant,’ he said.