By Larry Shaughnessy
U.S. military officials are anxiously awaiting North Korea's announced ballistic missile launch, which they described to Congress on Wednesday as part of the regime's "coercive strategy" to antagonize, provoke and then try to win concessions.
April 15 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Song, the founder of communist North Korea and the grandfather of the current North Korean leader, who has said there will be a missile launch around that date, in violation of numerous U.N. resolutions and the most recent agreement with the United States.
North Korea has designated the entire year of 2012 as a year of strength and prosperity in celebration of Kim Il Song's birthday.
"Our suspicions about North Korea using its celebrations this year to enhance its missile program were confirmed when North Korea announced on March 16 that it plans to conduct a missile launch between April 12 and 16," Peter Lavoy, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs, testified Wednesday at a hearing of the House Armed Service Committee.
"This planned launch is highly provocative because it manifests North Korea's desire to test and expand its long-range missile capability," he said.
It's not just the United States and South Korea who are concerned about a North Korean missile launch. The missile, if it works as planned - and the North's missiles often don't - is expected to fly south close to several East Asian nations.
"A number of countries are potentially affected," Lavoy said. "This could fall on - the debris could fall on their countries; could cause casualties. This affects South Korea, of course, but also Japan - Okinawa.
He noted that "the intended impact is probably somewhere close to the Philippines or maybe Indonesia."
Part of the U.S. agreement with North Korea was that Washington would send food aid there if Pyongyang agreed to a moratorium on missile launches.
"North Korea's announcement is also troublesome," Lavoy said, "because only two weeks prior in a February 29 statement, after three rounds of bilateral talks, North Korea had agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches. During those discussions the United States made it very clear that a satellite launch would be a deal breaker."
The suspension of food aid to North Korea was not just because of the threatened missile launch, Lavoy testified. The United States needed and did not get assurances that the food would get to ordinary citizens, not North Korea's ruling elite, he said.
The announcement of the launch soon after appearing to agree to new concession is part of a familiar North Korean cycle, according to the top commander of U.S. forces in South Korea.
"The way I look at this: North Korea uses a coercive strategy, and they use that strategy to get concessions," said Army Gen. James Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea. "First off, they will not, I don't believe, give up their capabilities in regard to ballistic missiles because they see that as a means to protect the regime. In regard to the coercive strategy, we've seen this cycle where they demand concessions, they don't get what they want - or they get what they want - they antagonize, they provoke, and then they go back into an appease mode.
"We've watched that on a continuous basis, so my sense is that they're going to continue to use that as long as they follow their military-first policy, which I believe goes to protect the Kim family and the whole Communist party there."
The hearing also brought attention to North Korea's sudden interest in computer attacks on South Korea and the United States.
"The newest addition to the North Korean asymmetric arsenal is a growing cyberwarfare capability," Thurman said in a written statement prepared for the hearing. "North Korea employs sophisticated computer hackers trained to launch cyber-infiltration and cyberattacks against" the Republic of Korea and the United States.
He said North Korea can launch these attacks without American officials knowing where they come from. The attacks "have been increasingly employed against a variety of targets including military, governmental, educations, and commercial institutions," Thurman wrote.
Asked in the hearing what the U.S. forces in South Korea are doing to prevent such attacks, Thurman declined to discuss details in the open hearing, but he did testify that "we work hand in hand with the (South Korean) military on the protection of our networks and, particularly, looking at interoperability."