North Korea routinely threatens to annihilate South Korea, the United States, and Japan. Of course, countless threats are never carried out and are meant as much to bolster the North Korean domestic audience as well as intimidate its neighbors. Yet North Korea has also repeatedly attacked allied military and civilian targets.
After its recent successful long-range missile and nuclear tests, Pyongyang now claims it already has the capability to target U.S. bases in the Pacific and the American homeland with nuclear weapons.
[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]
As frightening as these warnings are, North Korea would more likely conduct another tactical-level attack to achieve its objectives rather than risk national suicide through a nuclear strike. Discerning bluster from actual North Korean intent is always difficult, but recent actions suggest greater potential for another attack on South Korean military and civilian targets.
During the past month, North Korea nullified the Korean War armistice and all inter-Korean nonaggression agreements and ramped up its military movements and threats, particularly against South Korean islands and military units in the West Sea.
Moreover, the danger of North Korean miscalculation has increased further with new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, emboldened by recent nuclear and missile test successes and the knowledge that Seoul and Washington have never struck back in any significant way after previous deadly attacks.
[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]
Recently inaugurated South Korean President Park Geun-hye has vowed to respond forcefully to the next North Korean attack. South Korea has already loosened the rules of engagement, pushed the decision to take action to a lower command echelon, and augmented forces in the West Sea region, making retaliation and escalation more likely.
Washington has pledged to defend its ally, but friends and enemies are now questioning U.S. ability to deliver on its security promises. Massive cuts to the U.S. defense budget have weakened President Obama's "Asia Pivot" strategy and U.S. military capabilities.
-Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation. He previously served as the deputy division chief for Korea at the Central Intelligence Agency.
First appeared in U.S. News & World Report's "Debate Club."