Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have ratcheted up dramatically over the past 24 hours, following an artillery duel across the DMZ.  The exchange began when North Korea fired a single shell into ROK territory, apparently to underscore its displeasure over the resumption of loud speaker propaganda broadcasts by the Seoul government.  South Korean forces responded with a sustained barrage of 36 rounds, fired by 155 mm artillery units.

In the hours that followed, the war of words has only intensified; earlier today, Pyongyang announced that South Korea has until 5 pm Saturday (Korea time) to cease the broadcasts, which recently resumed after a decade-long pause.  The ultimatum came after North Korean dictator Kim Jong un placed his military on “war-time footing” and told them to be prepared to launch “surprise” operations.

So far, South Korea isn’t backing down, either.  ROK Defense Minister Han Minkoo warned earlier today that Pyongyang faces “searing consequences” if it launches fresh provocations.  According to the Associated Press, Mr. Han told reporters that Seoul will “cut off a vicious circle of North Korean provocation.

Along with the verbal sparring, there have been military moves on both sides.  Sources within the South Korean intelligence apparatus claim the DPRK has identified at least “11 sites” to be destroyed by SCUD missiles, if the current situation escalates.  Other officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, report that North Korea has been practicing the roll-out of long-range guns along the DMZ. Those weapons, normally stored in hardened bunkers, have the ability to strike targets across Seoul, a megalopolis of more than 12 million people.

Below the DMZ, elements of the ROK Army and Air Force are on heightened alert, and prepared to respond to new challenges from the North.       

Meanwhile, a DPRK sympathizer in Japan has (predictably) raised the specter of a possible nuclear conflict.  Kim Myong-chol, Director of the Centre for North Korea-US Peace, told the UK Telegraph that if the propaganda loudspeakers remain in place after the deadline, North Korea will attack, “with artillery, from the air and with land forces.”  And, in his role as a mouthpiece for the Pyongyang regime, Kim suggested the conflict could escalate past the conventional level:

“What happens after that depends on the reaction of South Korea and the US”, he said. “The North does not want a war, but South Korea and the US want war. So we will destroy their forces in an instant.”

Asked how the destruction of all the South Korean and US forces stationed south of the Demilitarised Zone might be achieved, Mr Kim said the North is ready to use its nuclear weapons. 
“It depends on the situation and the reactions of South Korea and the US, but it could be a nuclear war”, he said. “The choice is up to the Americans”. 

Yet, despite the latest round of sabre-rattling, the prospects for all-out war in Korea remain low, for a fundamental reason: food.  If an Army travels on its stomach (and it does), the North Korea military remains hard-pressed to feed its personnel, despite the high priority it receives for scarce resources.

Indeed, military readiness in the DPRK drops to its lowest point in the mid-to-late summer, when most members of the armed forces are in the fields, engaged in “agricultural activities” (as the Korean Central News Agency likes to phrase it).  Without these yearly excursions to the fields, many troops would not have sufficient rations to carry them through the harsh North Korean winter, when Kim Jong un’s military conducts most of its training.  

As the world contemplates a potential conflict on the Korean peninsula, it would be helpful if so-called “defense reporters” did a little digging, and tried to develop a better picture of DPRK military activities.  Obviously, if most of the North Korean military is currently cultivating crops, its ability to strike the south will be limited.  For once, it would be nice to see someone in the Pentagon press room ask about current training and deployment activities near the DMZ, and how those compare to previous years.  If those activities are at (or near) the usual summer lows, the potential for all-out war is rather low.  On the other hand, if training is abnormally high, particularly among missile, artillery and special forces units, there is cause for concern.  North Korea clearly has the ability to launch artillery barrages, missile strikes, SOF raids and other attacks that would not require the mobilization or preparation of large numbers of troops. 

And of course, there are the perpetual “wild cards” that complicate any sort of assessment on the situation in Korea.  At the top of that list is Kim Jong un, the DPRK’s young, undisciplined leader.  Having successfully purged members of the old guard from the ruling elite, Mr. Kim may be itching for a showdown with South Korea, believing his forces can replicate the events of 2010, when North Korean artillery units shelled a ROK-controlled island in the Yellow Sea, causing more embarassment for the Seoul government.  The barrage came just months after a DPRK sub torpedoed a South Korean frigate, resulting in the deaths of 46 ROK sailors.  In both cases, Pyongyang scored propaganda and military points, without losing any of its own personnel or equipment.  

This time around, the North is facing a more conservative (and some would say, determined) South Korean government, led by Park Geun-hye, the nation’s first female president.  Ms. Park, who took office in 2012, has supported relaxation of military rules of engagement, giving ROK forces more latitude in reacting to North Korean provocations.  

So, it’s no accident that yesterday’s artillery round from the North received more than 36 in response from ROK artillery units.  The days when South Korean units reacted cautiously to localized incidents–and only after extensive consultations with the Ministry of Defense–are clearly over.  Regional commanders have the right to defend their territory, their troops and local civilian populations, so almost any type of DPRK provocation will receive some sort of armed response.  Of course, this policy does increase the potential for escalation, but there are many officials, at the MOD and in the Blue House, who are determined to avoid humiliations like those endured five years ago.  

The other factors that enter into this equation are the influence of Beijing and Washington.  China remains the biggest patron of Kim’s regime, but the Beijing has done little to reign in the DPRK.  This time around, Chinese officials have expressed their usual “concerns,” the there is no indication that Beijing is prepared to take more forceful action that would force North Korea to back down.  

Here at home, the Obama Administration has been equally quiet on the situation.  So far, there have been no reports of phone calls between Mr. Obama and President Park, and there are apparently no plans to dispatch Secretary of State John Kerry (or other senior officials) to Northeast Asia for talks.  It is worth noting the U.S. and Seoul postponed plans to put American forces on the peninsula under the command of a South Korean general, a move that was supposed to occur in 2015.  The fact that an American general is in charge of ROK defenses has long rankled many in the South Korean political and military establishment.  When the postponement was announced last fall, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the command transfer would eventually occur, after ensuring ROK forces have the resources necessary to address an intensifying threat from the DPRK.   

Having a U.S. general still in charge of the combined defense structure gives Washington a bit of leverage in the situation, but no enough to prevent South Korean forces from responding to a new provocation from the North.  In fact, this latest stand-off may turn out to be a new challenge for the Obama-Clinton-Kerry School of Diplomacy, which is tough on U.S. allies and pathetically weak on enemies and rogue states.  Suggestions that Seoul back down could receive a rather impolite response.