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North Korea: the drumbeats of war

Why this time you should pay attention.

A North Korean soldier, left, looks south as a South Korean soldier stands guard at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul, April 14, 2010. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

ATLANTA — North Korea recently threatened to “mercilessly destroy” its foes. That didn’t elicit much reaction abroad. After all, the terms were similar to threats uttered countless times during and since the 1950-53 Korean War.

“Pundits describing the North Korean threat often downplay it because it appears obvious that North Korea’s military — despite its large size — is unlikely to be able to unify the peninsula,” said Bruce Bechtol, professor of international relations at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and an expert on the North Korean military.

This time, though, the regime added that it might employ its nuclear weapons in the process. And there are other reasons, including a newly reported change in the North’s war plans, why outsiders should not assume that the blowhard Kim Jong Il and his generals are all bluff.

“Those who downplay the evolving North Korean military threat do so not at their own peril but that of the Republic of [South] Korea,” Bechtel said in an email. The Northerners “have adapted their military — and their military planning — to changing times.”

Author of the excellent "Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea," Bechtel was commenting on a Tuesday article in the Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo. The paper quoted an unnamed high-ranking military source in South Korea as saying the North had relinquished its old plan, in case war should occur, of occupying all of the South within a week.

The North’s new war plan, JoongAng Ilbo said, is to quickly grab control of Seoul and the surrounding area just across the border from the North and then decide whether to proceed farther south — or simply stop and negotiate a cease-fire. In the latter case — holding hostage the most populous and developed Korean region by far, the capital and nerve center of the South — the North would have enormous bargaining power with the South and its U.S. ally.

According to Bechtel, “the North Koreans don’t need to unify the peninsula. They just need to take Seoul. Once they take Seoul, they have the overwhelming advantage.” Indeed, with their missiles, special operations forces and maneuver forces “poised on the invasion corridors,” he said, the Northern forces “are built and trained to do just that. For years I have been saying this. Now it comes out in the open press — and this is important — that that is exactly what their war plan is.”