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Under Pressure from North Korea, U.S. Cancels Annual Military Exercise with South Korea

The Associated Press reports that annual military exercises with South Korea have been halted–indefinitely–due to rising tensions on the DMZ and threats of war from Pyongyang. Is this a concession to North Korea’s threats, a bid to reduce tensions on the peninsula, or is it necessary to give American and South Korean units a chance to prepare for possible combat?

“North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Friday declared his front-line troops in a ‘quasi-state of war’ and ordered them to prepare for battle against South Korea in response to an exchange of artillery fire on the border Thursday,” the AP reports.

The exercise was supposed to run from last Monday through next Friday, so it is being halted or canceled about halfway through. The anonymous officials who spoke to the Associated Press said they “weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly” and did not know if the exercise would resume.

Measuring the true intention behind the belligerent rhetoric of the psychotic Communist state is always a tricky business; North Korea threatens all sorts of dire consequences and yells about war on a fairly regular basis. Only Friday, CNN published a report correctly noting the North’s fondness for “saber-rattling” and noting their current threats did not “necessarily mean war really is imminent” because “North Korea has used similar language in the past without hostilities breaking out.”

Actually, “hostilities break out” on a frequent basis, as well, without escalating into significant engagements or all-out war. The current crisis began when two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines North Korea dropped into their DMZ patrol route on August 4. Artillery shells sailed back and forth across the border, with no casualties reported.

Things escalated to the point that South Korea began blasting propaganda messages across the border through loudspeakers, which prompted North Korea to speak of all-out war and increase the combat readiness of its front-line troops. The North Korean artillery attack that prompted South Korean retaliatory shots was evidently an attempt to blow up some loudspeakers.

CNN notes that artillery has popped off in other areas during North-South disputes, but it was deemed an unusual and troubling sign of escalation to see the North lobbing shells across the highly sensitive DMZ.

Rumors abound that Pyongyang is preparing for some illegal missile tests, which could be the real reason they are sowing panic and trying to make U.S. and South Korean forces back away from their borders.

Whatever military analysts are seeing right now, it has apparently convinced them North Korea is serious about escalating the situation further. Friday morning brought reports that dictator Kim Jong-un had “reviewed and approved” a “final attack operation,” whatever that means. Fox News looked at North Korean media reports and deduced it might involve plans to assault and destroy all the South’s propaganda loudspeakers along the border; they have issued a deadline of Saturday at 5 P.M. local time (4 A.M. Eastern) for the South to remove all these installations.

In response, the South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo, defended the loudspeakers as a legitimate response to the North’s landmine attack, and said the North will face “searing” consequences for further aggression, promising that “this time, we’ll cut off a vicious circle of North Korean provocation.”

Reuters reports that China, which usually has a good deal of leverage with Pyongyang, has “voiced concern and urged both sides to step back,” but the North Koreans have “rejected the idea of restraint in an apparent rebuff of China’s calls.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye canceled a scheduled event on Friday and visited a military command post, giving an address reportedly intended to calm and reassure her nervous people. It is somewhat less than reassuring that she wore military camouflage while giving this address:

Update, 3:15 PM EST: According to CNN, the joint U.S.- South Korean exercises will resume.  The wording of the statement from Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear is interesting: “We suspended part of the exercise temporarily in order to allow our side to coordinate with the ROK [Republic of Korea] side on the subject of the exchange fire across the DMZ. And the exercise is being conducted now according to plan.”

USA Today adds that Shear said American forces were “remaining on an enhanced status as part of the exercise and, of course, to insure adequate deterrence on the peninsula.”  He explained that the decision to halt the exercise and coordinate with the ROK military was made by the U.S. commander in South Korea.

This would lend support to the notion that the pause in the training operation was more about getting ready for possible trouble than an effort to appease Pyongyang, which complains about these joint exercises with clockwork regularity every year, but did not seem particularly incensed about the 2015 maneuvers until now.  The focus of North Korea’s ire remains the South Korean propaganda loudspeakers, which the North remains insistent must be silenced, or it will silence them with military action over the weekend.  As of Friday afternoon, the South gave no indication of being willing to comply with North Korea’s deadline.

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