Hagel Vows Support for South Korea After North’s Threats

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reiterated the Obama administration’s “unwavering commitment” to protect South Korea following escalated North Korean threats to attack the U.S. and its Asian ally.

Hagel spoke with South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan Jin early today Seoul time, and “highlighted the steadfast U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea,” according to an e-mailed Pentagon statement. The two discussed the U.S. plan to boost its regional anti-missile defense after North Korea threatened to launch preemptive nuclear strikes.

The call came after North Korea this week cut off a military hotline with the South, put its artillery forces on high alert and reiterated attack warnings against the U.S. While severing the hotline may jeopardize the Gaeseong joint industrial area north of the border, South Korean workers remained in the complex today without incident.

Tensions have risen since Kim Jong Un’s impoverished state detonated a nuclear device in February in defiance of global sanctions. The U.S. and South Korea are conducting military drills that the North says puts the region the brink of war. Kim, who inherited his position after his father’s death in December 2011, has rebuffed international aid in favor of preserving a military-first policy to secure his legitimacy.

“Under the situation where a war may break out any moment, there is no need to keep north-south military communications,” the official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday. The regime cut off a separate Red Cross hotline on March 8.

‘Provocative, Unconstructive’

“This is yet another provocative and unconstructive step the North Korean regime has taken,” Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters in Washington.

In a demonstration of support, two B-2 stealth bombers flew from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri to the Korean peninsula today for a “long-duration, round-trip training mission,” U.S. Forces Korea said in an e-mailed statement.

The bombers, made by Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman Corp., dropped munitions on a range on an island off South Korea’s western coast to showcase the U.S. ability to conduct “long range, precision strikes quickly and at will,” USFK said. The flight was a part of the annual two-month Foal Eagle military exercise between the U.S. and South Korean forces which ends on Apr. 30.

South Korea’s military raised and then retracted its alert levels after spotting a suspicious object near the border early yesterday. While some warning shots were fired, there were no signs of North Korean infiltration or unusual troop movements, according to a South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff official who asked not to be identified due to national security concerns.

‘Doesn’t Help’

South Korea’s Unification Ministry urged the North to restore the hotline, saying in an e-mail that the decision to cut it “doesn’t help stable operation of the Gaeseong industrial complex.” More than 53,000 North Koreans and about 900 South Koreans regularly work at the site, according to Unification Ministry data.

More than 420 South Koreans came out of Gaeseong this evening and 887 will stay the night there, the ministry said in a text message, adding that about 430 are scheduled to leave the park tomorrow and 755 to enter.

“This last hotline is used primarily to discuss daily movement of South Korean businessmen into Gaeseong,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Contrary to all that’s been said so far, this measure may have actual consequences.”

‘Actual Consequences’

North Korea has cut off the hotline before, severing communications and stranding almost 800 South Koreans at Gaeseong in March 2009. The North temporarily severed ties in 2010 after an international panel found it responsible for the sinking of a South Korean warship. Forty-six sailors were killed.

Hagel and Kim discussed the U.S.-South Korea contingency plan against potential attacks from North Korea that was signed last week. The regime this month warned of nuclear strikes, threatened to destroy regional American military bases and invalidated the July 1953 armistice ending the Korean War.

North Korea will hold a plenary meeting of its top party leaders this month “to discuss and decide an important issue,” KCNA said yesterday without elaborating.

“Today we have a sacred task to closely unite around Kim Jong Un in single mind,” KCNA said, citing the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, of which Kim is first secretary.

‘Sacred Task’

Little, the Pentagon spokesman, said North Korea should cease statements he described as “extremely provocative, threatening, bellicose.”

“We take their rhetoric seriously,” Little said yesterday. “It seems to suggest a more direct threat.”

He told reporters the day before that U.S. B-52 bombers have made three training flights over South Korea this month.

North Korea’s conventional military arsenal includes 13,000 artillery systems, more than 4,000 tanks, and more than 2,000 armored personnel carriers, according to Army General James Thurman, the U.S. commander for Korea. Its air force has 1,700 aircraft, and its navy has more than 800 surface vessels, he said in a speech in Washington in October.

North Korea’s economy is about one-fortieth the size of that of its southern neighbor and is reliant on China for diplomatic and economic support. Chronic food insecurity and malnutrition affect about two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people, Jerome Sauvage, then-UN resident coordinator in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, said in June.

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