The U.S. and South Korea scrambled fighter jets in a show of force to Kim Jong Un and vowed a tough response to further provocations, hours ahead of the deadline North Korea set for a military action.
Four U.S. F-16s and four South Korean F-15Ks teamed up for a combat drill Saturday, while the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen of the two countries agreed in a phone call to respond “strongly” to any North Korean attack, Col. Jeon Ha Kyu, a spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said by phone.
The U.S. is “steadfast” in its commitment to South Korea and together will continue their joint annual military exercises until Aug. 28 to heighten readiness, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear told reporters Friday in Washington. Earlier, there was a brief suspension of the exercises, which began Monday.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s government on Friday refused to heed Kim’s demands on Thursday to stop broadcasting anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts across the border by 5 p.m. local time or face dire consequences. Kim’s troops deployed “multiple rocket launchers” and “entered into a wartime state” after trading fire with the South Thursday, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
“Will there be escalation? Possibly,” Patrick Cronin, senior adviser for the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said in an e-mail. “If that happens, then one simply does not know what happens next. Even a ‘limited’ exchange could create a serious war-footing in both Koreas and alter the regional agenda.”
This week’s confrontation is one of the most serious since Kim rose to power in 2011, sending South Korean stocks to a two-year low. The won retreated 0.8 percent Friday as China expressed concern, urging both sides to avoid escalation.
“Nothing can be guaranteed at this moment,” Lee Ho Chul, a political science professor at Incheon National University in South Korea, said by phone. “But neither side wants a clash to escalate because Kim can’t afford to fight joint U.S.-South Korean forces and Park can’t afford to let the economy be shaken.”
South Korea fired a barrage of artillery on Thursday after the North fired shells into South Korean territory to protest against anti-North broadcasts. The North denies initiating the fire and blamed the South of fabricating information.
North Korean diplomats waged a publicity blitz to argue its case, with its envoys to Russia and the United Nations scheduling press conferences. North Korea on Friday requested an emergency UN Security Council meeting on the tensions, An Myong Hun, the North’s deputy ambassador to the UN, told reporters in New York.
‘Brink of War’
“The situation is at an irreversible brink of war,” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Friday in a statement. “For decades we’ve restrained. Now, no calls for restraint by anyone can help mitigate the situation.”
South Korea is monitoring markets and is prepared to take action to offset any turmoil caused by the North Korean situation, Vice Finance Minister Joo Hyung Hwan told reporters. Policy makers are also watching for risks stemming from U.S. monetary policy and China’s slowdown, he said.
Tensions have flared in recent weeks across the DMZ that bisects the Korean peninsula, more than 60 years after the Korean War ended in a stalemate. Two South Korean soldiers were maimed Aug. 4 by land mines that the government in Seoul says were recently laid by North Korea. North Korea denied setting the devices.
South Korea retaliated by resuming propaganda broadcasts through loudspeakers for the first time since 2004. North Korea threatened “indiscriminate attacks” over the broadcasts and slammed the U.S. and South Korea for starting annual joint military drills that the North calls a rehearsal for invasion.
The truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War has been periodically disrupted by exchanges of fire, though they’ve petered out before turning more serious.
North Korea previously declared “a state of war” during U.S.-South Korean drills in 2013, a month after conducting its third nuclear test. In 2010 North Korea shelled a front-line South Korean island, killing four people. Last year, their ships traded warning fire near a disputed Yellow Sea boundary.
North Korea moved its clock back by half an hour earlier this month to mark the anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule. That means Kim’s order for his army to be ready for war at 5 p.m. takes effect at 5:30 p.m. in Seoul.