U.S. intelligence agencies are closely monitoring North Korea for signs the Kim Jong-un regime is set to conduct a new military provocation that could trigger another conflict on the Asian peninsula, according to U.S. officials.
Intelligence agencies recently stepped up intelligence gathering of the isolated communist state following an unusual threat issued by North Korea to conduct "special actions." The threat was viewed as a likely signal that some form of provocative action by the North Korean military is coming soon.
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Additional worrisome signs include recent electronic jamming by North Korea of aircraft and ships near the border and maritime dividing line between North and South, as well as the movement of missile batteries.
South Korean government authorities said 252 commercial flights from Incheon and Gimpo airports west of Seoul reported navigation systems were disrupted by GPS jamming thought to emanate from nearby North Korea. The activity began in late April.
South Korea’s Coast Guard reported on Monday that 122 ships suffered GPS disruptions due to jamming produced by electronic signals from the north.
The jamming is believed to be the work of North Korean military electronic warfare units operating in or near the demilitarized zone separating the two countries.
Satellite imagery revealed last month that North Korea’s military had moved coastal anti-ship missile batteries and other missile launchers—an unusual activity that analysts say could be linked to the latest Pyongyang threat.
Army Gen. James D. Thurman, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, told Congress recently that a new military provocation from North Korea poses a major threat and could trigger a larger conflict in the region.
"Currently, the greatest threat remains instability in North Korea or a provocation that culminates in a broader conflict which could, in its extreme, result in the use of weapons of mass destruction," Thurman said.
North Korea conducted two major military provocations in 2010 and recently carried out a long-range missile test U.S. officials also labeled a provocation. The first was the sinking by torpedo of a South Korean naval ship the Cheonan on March 26, 2010, killing 46 sailors. The second was the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, a border island that killed four South Koreans and injured 19.
South Korea’s government announced after that Nov. 23, 2010, incident that it would retaliate against any future attacks.
The unusual North Korean threat was issued April 23 notice by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Supreme Command Special Operations Action Team.
The North Korean statement said the KPA would "soon" take "special actions," a term not used by the North in the past despite state media that frequently uses inflammatory rhetoric. The statement called the South Korean government a "group of rats" that would be turned into ashes in minutes.
The statement has raised concerns that a future attack may be carried out by the 60,000-strong North Korea special-forces troops, one of the world’s largest commando forces.
North Korean special forces are trained in numerous infiltration methods, including overland, underwater, and airborne, according to recent testimony by Thurman.
"Well trained, well resourced and extremely loyal to the Kim regime, these forces could cause significant disruptions to South Korean governance, utilities distribution, infrastructure operations, and mobilization," Thurman said.
He added that North Korea’s use of special forces is well documented and dates to the 1960s. The forces were deployed as recently as 2011 when Pyongyang commandos sent an assassination team to South Korea. The dispatch of the team "highlights the nature of this threat and North Korea’s willingness to use it," Thurman said.
North Korea is currently focused on engaging South Korea but "history tells us Pyongyang will shift from diplomatic to provocative behavior when conventional diplomacy has run its course and the North Korean leadership perceives coercive diplomacy offers a better chance to realize its objectives," Thurman said in a prepared statement to the House Armed Services Committee March 28.
The recent threat to use "special actions" was viewed as milder than past rhetoric by the north in threatening to turn South Korea into a "sea of fire" and in its use of similar bombastic phrases.
The recent threat was also less direct than the North Korea military’s announcement prior to the torpedoing of the Cheonan in 2010, when it announced plans for "powerful military counteraction" against joint U.S.-South Korean military drills in the Yellow Sea near North Korea.
The latest threat was broadcast to internal North Korean audiences and abroad, a practice not done in the past, and was repeated for three days after its first broadcast on state-controlled radio and television.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta raised the prospect of a new military action by North Korea during a recent visit to Brazil.
"We’ve gone through a dangerous cycle with North Korea that involves periods of accommodation and then periods of provocation," Panetta said April 24.
Panetta said the failed rocket launch was a "dangerous provocation" and "we would strongly urge North Korea not to engage in any further provocation" such as a third underground nuclear test.
"I do not have any specific information as to whether or not they will proceed or not with additional provocations at this time, but I, again, would strongly urge them not to engage in any kind of provocation, be it nuclear testing or any other act that would provide greater instability in a dangerous part of the world," he said.
U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Samuel Locklear was asked by a reporter in Seoul last month whether the U.S. would consider "surgical strikes" against North Korea prior to a nuclear test, as U.S. forces reportedly considered in 1994 before the first nuclear test.
"I don't think it would be appropriate to comment on how we would pursue any future military operations, but I can tell you that, with the alliance, that we are continually looking at all options," Locklear said.