U.S. Intel Official: North Korea Is Bluffing

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Kim Jae-Hwan / AFP-Getty Images

Despite all the recent huffing and puffing from Pyongyang, U.S. officials say they’ve seen little physical evidence that North Korea might actually be preparing to go to war. Just hours after Seoul blamed the North for the March 26 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il publicly ordered his armed forces to get ready for military action, according to sources quoted in The Guardian. But two U.S. national security officials, asking for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, tell Declassified they’re not aware of any intelligence reporting on significant military mobilization or redeployments inside North Korea.  The North Korean military is always on the move somewhere, one of the officials said, but at the moment whatever movements are being noted by Western intelligence agencies are regarded as not particularly threatening. A third U.S. foreign policy official, who also asked for anonymity, told Declassified that U.S. agencies are picking up “nothing of extreme concern” in what North Korean forces are currently up to.

Pyongyang could still launch some form of surprise military action if it really wanted to. For one thing, South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul, is only 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, within easy artillery range. The North Koreans keep their forward artillery batteries stocked with enough ammunition to do serious damage, one of the officials points out. But there are no indications that the North is preparing to embark on any such adventure, which would almost certainly risk a wider conflict. There’s also the possibility that Pyongyang might try to intimidate its neighbors by setting off another missile or nuclear test. And although the North might be able for the most part to conceal preparations for an underground nuclear explosion, the West’s detection equipment would probably pick up signs that the North was planning a major new missile test, and according to one of the officials, no such preparations appear to be under way.

With little hard information as to what goes on inside the minds of Kim and his top associates, Western intelligence agencies can only guess at why the Cheonan was hit. As we reported last week, however, one theory gaining currency among U.S. experts is that the attack was retaliation for a naval clash last November in which a South Korean ship allegedly fired on and damaged a North Korean vessel. U.S. officials confirm a New York Times report saying U.S. agencies believe that Kim personally authorized the attack on the Cheonan. The officials point out that Kim made a visit to China after the incident, apparently proving that despite reports of  questionable health he was mobile and alert enough to undertake a relatively strenuous journey.

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