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North Korea: Bombast, but probably not bombs

Mar. 18, 2013 - 12:31PM   |  
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North Korea and its leader, the bulky young Kim Jong-un, are doing their best to stir up anxiety among U.S. leaders, the American public, and especially U.S. airmen on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s war talk is “inflammatory” and “dangerous,” a senior U.S. Air Force officer in South Korea told me in a March 12 telephone conversation.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that Pyongyang’s “bellicose rhetoric” has raised concerns. But officials also say the United States and its South Korean ally are ready for trouble.

The latest provocations hit a zenith March 11, when North Korea’s army announced the 1953 Korean armistice is now invalid.

The announcement came from the army because the July 27, 1953, cease-fire, soon to mark its 60th birthday, was signed by commanders in the field: on our side, the United Nations Command and on their side the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers.

Kim, in a statement carried by North Korea’s Central News Agency, urged his troops, once an order is issued, to “break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes, and thus clearly show them what a real war is like.”

That sounds pretty hostile, but take it with a grain of salt.

Yes, the situation is serious. Yes, anything could happen on the Korean Peninsula, where more than a million armed troops confront each other across nearly 2½ miles of ground along the 160-mile border so wrongly and so ironically named the Demilitarized Zone.

But there’s a good chance that North Korea’s public statements are mostly for internal consumption. And despite being heavily armed and having tested nuclear weapons, North Korea’s forces are no match for what awaits them if they cross the DMZ and start south.

My guess is that we’ll hear more rhetoric in the weeks ahead, but the North Koreans are too rational to launch a major military action.

Here’s how I decided they’re rational: I was the North Korea watcher in the Department of State in Washington from 1970 to 1972 and from 1976 to 1979. My expertise isn’t current, but my experience helps to inform my opinion.

Over decades, our South Korean allies have become confident and powerful. Their air force has newer equipment than ours, including F-15K Slam Eagles and F-16C/D Block 50 Fighting Falcons, and is qualitatively far superior to the North’s. By many standards of measure, South Koreans enjoy higher literacy, education and personal income than Americans. Over time, they’ve shouldered more of the burden of defending themselves.

I once thought they should handle it all (“It’s Time to Pull out of Korea,” Air Force Times, July 8, 1996). Given our interests in Asia today, I now believe we need to maintain our presence in Korea. But I also believe the current flare-up is a temporary thing.

Let’s hope that’s the right conclusion.

Robert F. Dorr is a veteran of Air Force service in South Korea from 1958-1960, is author of “Mission to Tokyo.” He’s at

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