U.S. and South Korean forces along the world's most heavily fortified border were on their highest alert level in three years last week, following an apparent nuclear test by North Korea over the Memorial Day weekend and apparent preparations for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The North also announced that it was no longer bound by the armistice that suspended major hostilities on the peninsula half a century ago. The reclusive regime in Pyongyang has made several such declarations in the past, without resorting to warfare.
In Washington, meanwhile, National Security Adviser James Jones said last week that a united international response from countries like Russia, India, and China is both possible and necessary to defuse the situation. Jones said that North Korea will be a top priority on the agenda when President Obama meets with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during the American leader's first state visit to Moscow in July. For its part, the Chinese Foreign Ministry says that the country "resolutely opposes" the North's nuclear test.
North Korea is among the most secretive regimes in the world, and Western intelligence services call it one of the "toughest nuts to crack" in terms of accurately understanding its actions. In fact, North Korea watchers say, the nuclear test may be the result of an internal succession struggle in Pyongyang, with one faction asserting its commitment to retain a nuclear deterrence, for instance. Whatever the underlying reasons, the stakes are high.
The North's military forces, arrayed along the 38th parallel, have thousands of artillery pieces well within range of the South Korean capital, Seoul. There are some 30,000 U.S. troops in the region as well as 700,000 soldiers from South Korea. Incursions into the neutral zone between the two countries are not unheard of as each side continually monitors the other. Following the nuclear blast, North Korea launched several short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, perhaps in an effort to frighten off U.S. spy planes watching its military facilities, national security experts say.
Further upping the ante, South Korea announced that it will participate in a U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative. More than 90 nations have signed on to the effort to stop and search vessels at sea suspected of carrying banned weapons. Meanwhile, the Stalinist state's official news agency warned foreign vessels that searching North Korean ships would result in "a decisive and merciless retaliatory blow." The waters around the peninsula have been a frequent arena of conflict, and the crabbing season, in contested fishing grounds, is just one area of concern for the coming weeks and months, says Paul Stares, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the North's actions as "provocative and belligerent," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs seemed to dismiss the developments as "saber rattling." Jones, meanwhile, also downplayed the deteriorating situation, telling an audience of foreign policy experts in Washington that North Korea had signaled that a nuclear test was planned. "Nothing that the North Koreans did surprised us," Jones said. "We knew that they were going to do this. They said so." He added that the country still doesn't have the technology necessary to make its nuclear devices into deliverable weapons.