Is the U.S. Preparing for Preventive War? Here’s What North Korea Really Thinks

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Preventive War
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in an unknown location in North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 15, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. PICTURE BLURRED AT SOURCE. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC162ADAFBA0

This post was originally published on The National Interest.

In mid-November 2017, I spent several days in Pyongyang talking to DPRK foreign ministry officials about the prospects of war between North Korea and the United States. These were sobering discussions. All of my interlocutors made it clear that while North Korea does not want war, it will not hide from it either. These officials feared that the US was already trying to shape the battlefield for a military operation against the North, and that South Koreans do not seem to have grasped the reality that the Trump administration is set on a course for preventive war. However, Pyongyang is extremely serious about this scenario and is not bluffing when it says that “only one question remains: when will war break out?” In this respect, our counterparts emphasized that “our soldiers have long been sleeping without removing their boots.”

To Freeze or Not to Freeze?

During my visit, I heard nothing to suggest that North Korea is prepared, at this time, to be the first to accept the Russian and Chinese proposal for a freeze on its missile and nuclear tests in return for American agreement to freeze its joint military exercises with South Korea. The North Koreans insisted their sovereignty be respected and rejected any preconditions.

Although my North Korean interlocutors acknowledged that the Korean Peninsula was sliding toward war, they reaffirmed the country’s commitment to achieving nuclear parity with the United States. Moreover, according to experts from the DPRK Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace, the United States is not just expanding the scale of regular and irregular military exercises along North Korea’s perimeter, but also introducing fundamentally new elements designed to achieve specific operational goals in the event of a large-scale conflict between North Korea and the United States.

The Pentagon is Preparing for War

Indeed, North Koreans see the US-ROK exercises as anything but routine; to the contrary, there was a sense among them that the Pentagon has launched the contact reconnaissance phase of a military operation it is planning to undertake on the peninsula. They noted  that the geographical features of the Korean Peninsula provide no opportunity for the gradual, methodical buildup of troops to create a superior strike force—as was the case before the US attacked Iraq—and that North Korea would immediately notice such actions and naturally regard them as a casus belli. In their eyes, the Pentagon is rehearsing elements of a coordinated military operation one step at a time. The three aircraft carrier strike groups that are operating in Korea’s East Sea, as well as many other operations, were not just a show of force.

The same is true, they argued, about the latest US-South Korean air exercise Vigilant Ace, which involved 230 aircraft and a large number of varied types of stealth aircraft. The deployment for the first time of so many stealth airplanes looks especially ominous from the North Korean perspective against the backdrop of recent US-ROK exercises practicing decapitation strikes against Kim Jong Un in a first strike using ground, naval, air and special operations forces. These, and many other new elements that have appeared in drills over the past several months, have elicited growing concern that different elements of a combined arms operation against North Korea are being methodically rehearsed and that “zero hour,” as they put it, is not too far away.

The North Korean-South Korean Perception Gap

In my conversations in Pyongyang, senior North Korean Foreign Ministry officials did not conceal their surprise that Seoul failed to see the huge gap in threat perceptions between American and South Korean societies. The North Koreans see growing signs, reflecting President Donald Trump’s “America First” principle, that the United States is prepared to accept the terrible loss of lives that would result from a large-scale military conflict with North Korea. In contrast, South Korean public opinion continues to believe that president Trump would never start a war in Korea—and that the tension, crisis-like atmosphere, and belligerent rhetoric are all posturing.

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This post was originally published on The National Interest.