North Korea threatened on Tuesday to scrap the armistice that halted the Korean War over 60 years ago and warned it would recall a military representative stationed at the border peace village of Panmunjom. That would mean returning to a state of war.
Gen. Kim Yong-chol, who oversees the North's spy activities targeting South Korea, appeared on state TV and even blustered the North will retaliate using "precision nuclear strikes" that will create a "sea of fire."
North Korean saber-rattling is nothing new, but that Kim personally delivered the warning attests to the gravity of the situation. First of all, strengthened sanctions against North Korea will be put to the vote at the UN soon that will subject all cargo entering and leaving the North to inspections, while all of Pyongyang's financial activities will be monitored. Most importantly, China is backing those sanctions this time, thereby significantly bolstering the psychological impact on the North.
Judging from North Korea's past behavior, the renegade country is entirely capable of launching a futile provocation to hold negotiations on its own terms rather than simply accepting its fate.
Kim threatened to scrap the armistice effective next Monday, when South Korea and the U.S. start their annual joint military drills. There is no way of telling what type of provocation the North will resort to. It may take the form of a fourth nuclear test, the firing of a ballistic missile, incursions past the de facto maritime border on the West Sea, or shelling of South Korean islands near the NLL.
North Korea has bolstered submarine operations and announced it would hold a massive military drill next week. On the day of President Park Geun-hye's inauguration on Feb. 25, the North even held a mock drill to practice hitting Seoul.
The South Korean military vowed on Wednesday to respond firmly to any North Korean provocation by punishing "the starting point, its supporting forces and command." The military bolstered readiness and ordered frontline commanders to remain close to their units in case of an emergency, assuming the situation may escalate into a full-blown military standoff.
It goes without saying that the government's duty is to deal effectively with the situation while reassuring the public. But the government is in limbo right now. The national security team at Cheong Wa Dae, which should serve as the control tower, is managing the situation without a legal mandate since the opposition continues to block President Park Geun-hye's government restructuring plan. The new defense minister has yet to be inaugurated and the outgoing minister is handling duties.
The greatest risk in a crisis is an uncertain command situation. This is why it is crucial in battles to take down the enemy's command structure. South Korea is voluntarily putting itself at risk by allowing its leadership to remain in a state of limbo.
If the North launches a provocation right now, would the government be able to make quick and accurate decisions? Probably not. The opposition may have honorable motives in stonewalling the government restructuring bill. But politicians must remember that South Korea is the only country in the world that faces a direct threat from an enemy like North Korea.