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U.S. Parries N. Korean Threats With A Fresh Plan

South Korea conducts military exercises near the border with North Korea on Wednesday.
Ahn Young-joon
South Korea conducts military exercises near the border with North Korea on Wednesday.

You might think alarm bells would be sounding in Washington, given the warnings coming out of North Korea. But when they talk about North Korea, U.S. officials are sounding like exasperated parents responding to a child's tantrum.

At the White House on Friday, spokesman Jay Carney said the United States "would not be surprised" if North Korea actually carries out a missile test.

"We have seen them launch missiles in the past, and the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly condemned them as violations of the North's obligations under numerous Security Council resolutions, and it would fit their current pattern of bellicose, unhelpful and unconstructive rhetoric and actions," Carney said.

If the North Koreans do launch a missile, the U.S. would have to decide whether to shoot it down. On the eve of a launch in 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. forces would do so only if the missile were headed toward U.S. territory.

After the North Koreans shelled a South Korean military base in 2010, however, U.S. and South Korean leaders resolved to respond more aggressively to such incidents. They drew up what they called a counterprovocation plan, and this year they knew the plan might be put to a test.

One Plan, Three Messages

The U.S. and South Korea stage joint military exercises every year around this time, and North Korea always gets upset. This year, there's a new leader in the North, determined to make an impression. So the U.S. and South Korea decided it was important to "signal" their readiness to respond to hostile action and the exercises included an especially dramatic show of force with stealth bombers.

The reaction from the North has been especially aggressive.

Gen. Walter Sharp, who until last year was the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, says the whole sequence of events shows how challenging it is to deal with all the demands, contingencies and the risks on the Korean Peninsula.

"That's why there's been a lot of effort over the past two and a half years now to build this counterprovocation plan," Sharp says. "Because that's a hard balance of a strong response — don't escalate, but be prepared to go to war."

U.S. officials say the counterprovocation plan and the U.S. show of force send three separate messages: The South Koreans see that the U.S. military is standing behind them; the North Koreans find out what they'd face were they to start something; and China sees how high the stakes are and why it may need to rein North Korea in.

A Plan For Escalation, A Preference For Calm

If the North Koreans launched even a limited artillery strike against the South — like what they did in 2010 — Gen. Sharp says South Korean troops would fire back instantly.

If North Korea were then to escalate, Presidents Obama in Washington and Park Geun-hye in the Republic of Korea would decide how to respond.

"There are options that people have worked and thought through that could very quickly be brought to President Park and President Obama," Sharp says.

That's the escalation scenario, and it leads to all-out war.

So now that the show of force and resolve signals have been sent, it's time for another message: that war should be avoided.

"We have no specific information to suggest an imminent threat to U.S. citizens or facilities in the [Republic of Korea]," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said this week, reassuring Americans by relaying a statement from the U.S. Embassy in South Korea.

"The goal there was to be calming, obviously," she said. That message, to calm down, coming at what seems like an especially dangerous moment, was likely meant to be heard on all sides.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.