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.
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.”
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.
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.
As if the potential for miscalculation were not severe enough, there is the matter of the newly anointed and completely untested North Korean leader, according to Bruce Bechtol, an associate professor at Angelo State University in Texas and a noted Korea scholar.
North Korea has for decades occasionally launched military provocations, he said, but they are carefully calibrated, generally appearing, at least at first, “to be relatively small, easily contained and quickly ‘resolved’ incidents.”
But the ability of Mr. Kim to get that calibration right is “questionable at best,” he said.
“He lacks the experience, the skill and the judgment that his father and grandfather had,” Mr. Bechtol told The Times.
“That is what makes escalation more likely,” he concluded.
The consequences of an all-out conflict don’t bear thinking about.
The North Koreans boast their massed artillery and rockets can fire 250,000 rounds per hour. American sources say the figure is 500,000. They can blanket a 37-mile swath of territory south of the DemilitarizedZone (DMZ) from coast to coast, putting Seoul easily in range.