August 24, 2015 11:10
North Korea seems to be stepping up preparations for a military provocation even as ongoing high-level talks seek to avert the worst.
More than 50 North Korean submarines have apparently been sent out on mystery missions, and artillery strength and warfare-readiness along the frontline have been raised to the max, a military source said Sunday.
That suggests the North has embraced a two-prong strategy tempering its traditional brinkmanship with diplomacy.
"The current sortie rate of North Korean submarines is as high as 10 times the rate in ordinary times," a military official said. "Scores of subs that have left their bases on the eastern and western coasts are off our radar, which is an unprecedentedly serious situation."
About 50 submarines have vanished from South Korean and U.S. radars since they left their bases on Saturday and Sunday, a whopping 70 percent of the North's entire fleet of 70 submarines and submersibles.
Fears are that they could cross the Northern Limit Line or infiltrate into rear areas to launch surprise attacks on South Korean Navy vessels or send commandos into South Korea.
Military authorities here are especially dismayed since it was a North Korean submersible that sank the Navy corvette Cheonan in 2010.
While most North Korean subs are so noisy that they are easy to detect, the sheer numbers make it impossible to keep track of them all.
South Korean and U.S. military authorities have stepped up patrols with anti-submarine equipment like P-3C maritime patrol aircraft.
The official also said the North has more than doubled its artillery strength along the demilitarized zone since Friday afternoon, when it proposed high-level talks. "They seem ready to shoot."
Meanwhile, North Korean media claimed 1 million young men have applied for enlistment or re-enlistment in the army in a bout of patriotic fervor fueled by rising cross-border tensions.
The South Korean and U.S. militaries on Saturday raised the level of Watchcon, a five-stage surveillance alert, from 3 to 2.
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