WASHINGTON - The United States' highly visible show of force on the Korean peninsula has raised some concern by analysts that such gestures may be provoking further bellicose action by North Korea rather than deterring it.
The U.S. has used some of its most advanced stealth bombers and fighters in highly publicized annual military exercises with South Korea over the past several weeks. It is also expanding American missile-defense systems in the region and moving two guided-missile destroyers closer to the South Korean coast.
Washington says its moves are defensive, intended to make clear it will respond decisively if North Korea follows through on its recent threats against the U.S., South Korea and other American allies in the region.
However, some analysts are convinced the U.S. display of overwhelming military supremacy may actually reinforce Pyongyang's long-held conviction that the United States is preparing to invade the North with the nearly 30,000 American troops now stationed in South Korea.
"If you look at U.S. policy at the moment, it seems to consist almost entirely of military intimidation of North Korea," said Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "I think it is time to rewrite our North Korea manuals. North Korea is all but impervious to outside pressure. This isn't going to help."
Diplomacy is the most effective way to deal with North Korea, Breuker argues. He cites the 1994 deal between the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, in which American diplomacy is credited with narrowly averting war by convincing Pyongyang to "freeze" its nuclear development work.
The Dutch analyst says the current display of U.S. military strength may actually persuade Pyongyang that nuclear weapons are essential to its survival. As evidence of this, he points to North Korea's announcement this week that it will restart operations at a nuclear reactor that had been shut down years ago.
Disagreement on "show of power"
Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul disputes Breuker's skepticism, and the notion that displaying U.S. military power will not deter Pyongyang.
On the contrary, Pinkston says, North Korea is more likely to attack when it detects weakness in its foes.
"I think these types of exercises and trainings send a very clear message that deters and greatly reduces the likelihood of North Korea lashing out in violent ways as they have done on numerous occasions over the last century," Pinkston said.
"They're very, very cognizant of the military balance, and when they know they will take a severe beating, then they will behave. But when you're weak, then they won't behave. Then they will use violence and force to push their agenda," Pinkston added.
The latest tensions began when North Korea conducted a successful satellite launch in December, a move the U.S. and others condemned as a banned long-range missile test. In February, it conducted a third nuclear test, in what was seen as a further step toward being able to threaten the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons.
The United Nations passed tough sanctions in response to the tests, which only further angered the North. It then began a campaign of high-stakes war rhetoric, threatening a nuclear attack on the U.S. mainland and a war of reunification on the Korean peninsula. It has also ditched a 60-year-old Korean War truce and threatened to close a joint industrial complex with the South.
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Washington suspicious of Pyongyang's threats
U.S. officials believe North Korean's young and inexperienced leader, Kim Jong Un, will not follow through on his threats to attack Seoul or any U.S. bases. They say the leadership in Pyongyang knows its own survival is at stake if it does so.
But Breuker says he is worried the situation could spin out of control if both Washington and Pyongyang continue to brandish their military might, even if neither side wants an all-out conflict.
"I don't think the North will start a war. Kim Jong Un isn't suicidal. I don't think the U.S. wants war, either. South Korea certainly doesn't," he said. "But even though nobody wants war, everyone is caught in this downward spiral of escalations."
Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the problem lies with North Korea, which has insisted on continuing its nuclear weapons program despite the U.N. sanctions.
"I think they're deluded into thinking that preservation of the regime is based on these sophisticated weapons systems. Nobody's going to be attacking North Korea without provocation," said Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick acknowledges that Pyongyang's decision to restart its nuclear reactor could be seen as a failure of Western policy toward North Korea. But he says very few policies toward North Korea in the past several decades have been successful in reducing Pyongyang's aggressive behavior.
"I don't think the United States can be faulted for its display of deterrent capability," said Fitzpatrick, who insists that Washington's demonstration of military supremacy is, in fact, accomplishing some of its goals.
"One goal is to demonstrate to North Korea, lest they forget, that the United States has overpowering capabilities to destroy their country should North Korea follow through on any of these threats. But the second and probably more important purpose is to reassure South Korea that America's alliance remains firm and that extended deterrence is still very firm," he says.
Still, Breuker says North Korea is not likely to back down any time soon.
"The United States is the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world," he said. "It can step away from this without losing face, while the North can't. Everything it has, everything it is, is tied up in this confrontation with the outside world. It can't back down. It won't back down. Even if this means it gets destroyed in the process."
So far, there are few signs Pyongyang is ready to retreat from its war rhetoric. This week, it gave what it called "final approval" for an attack on the United States. It has also moved what appears to be a medium-range missile to its coast in preparation for another launch - a move that has many of its neighbors on edge.
But there is evidence the U.S. is moving to ratchet down the tensions with Pyongyang. Several Pentagon officials told American media outlets this week they were concerned the tough U.S. response was provoking an unexpectedly strong response from North Korea. The officials said the U.S. would be pulling back from its firm posture in an attempt to reduce the possibility of clashes.