North Korea Sanctions Met With Threats Of Military Action, But Will the Koreas Really Go To War?

The "Key Resolve," an annual U.S.-South Korea joint military drill, kicked off on March 11 despite stern warnings by North Korea that defined this drill as "igniting the fuse of nuclear war of aggression against North Korea." As declared in its previous official statement, North Korea has severed the Pyongyang-Seoul hotline and "nullified" its armistice agreement. In the midst of escalating tension, the "Key Resolve," involving 13,000 South Korean and U.S. troops, will continue to be carried out to its completion until March 21 along with another U.S.-South Korean joint military exercise, "Foal Eagle," which started earlier this month. 

As North Korea, for the first time in its long history of declaring extremely bellicose yet often empty threats, shows its willingness to strike a "preemptive attack," the world is belatedly considering the possibility of North Korea employing its nuclear weapons to attack the U.S. or South Korea. Fortunately, it is highly unlikely that North Korea will take such dramatic action. A closer look at North Korea’s history of nuclear diplomacy shows that Pyongyang has used its nuclear weapons as a coercive diplomatic tool to put the U.S. on the negotiating table and get a better deal out of it. Despite the revamped sense of crisis and imminent apocalypse, Pyongyang’s fiery rhetoric and the current escalation of tension might be just "business as usual." While the U.S. and South Korea have conducted these joint military drills every year for the past decades, the fact that North Korea "chose" to put a special meaning to these particular drills might ring a bell. 

Then why "Key Resolve" and "Foal Eagle"? The tension has already been heightening since North Korea’s satellite launch last year, seemingly successful nuclear test on February 12, and the following UN Security Council resolution on sanctions against North Korea. As the Obama administration shows no sign of budging and the new South Korean president Madame Park Geun-Hye more or less continues former President Lee Myung-bak’s hardline policy, Pyongyang has been under greater pressure to raise its leverage. The joint drills by the U.S. and South Korea provide a perfect justification for escalating the tension.

However, these threats are not to be overlooked. Even though a nuclear "preemptive attack" by North Korea is unlikely, Pyongyang’s next move might as well be some kind of a shoot-out in the Yellow Sea or bombing on an island or a relatively sparsely populated region near the border. Previous threats followed through on by North Korea include Pyongyang’s 2010 sinking of a South Korean corvette, "Cheon’an,"that killed 46 sailors, and the following bombing of Yeonpyong Island in the same year that killed 4 South Koreans including two civilians. Possible low-intensity attacks by North Korea are likely to create enough casualties to put everybody on toes but not enough for South Korea or the U.S. to retaliate with a full force. Accordingly, the South Korean military is gearing up to prepare against such a surprise attack. However, a high-ranking official of South Korea Ministry of Defense warned not to exaggerate the threat, saying "the dog that barks loud does not bite."