Administration Suddenly on Alert About 'Bellicose' North Korea

Through President Obama’s first term, the administration stubbornly resisted repeated calls from Congress to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

This despite persistent reports that North Korea continues to provides missile and nuclear technology to Iran as well as Hezbollah and Hamas, weapons caches from North Korea discovered in the hands of the Gadhafi regime after its fall, assistance to the Syrian regime, missile and nuclear tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, abductions of foreign citizens, shoot-to-kill orders against citizens trying to escape the country, and countless human rights violations.

“This is a critical moment for our allies in Asia, and the United States must reaffirm its unwavering support for South Korea and Japan as they continue to live under the increasing threat of a nuclear North Korea,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said last month as she introduced the North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Nonrecognition Act of 2013.

“Kim Jong-un has made his priorities clear: to obtain a nuclear weapon and to proliferate nuclear technology with rogue regimes, such as Iran and Syria,” she added.

But an administration unwilling to put Pyongyang on a provocative list is suddenly responding and shoring up defenses in the face of provocations from 30-year-old dictator Kim Jong-un.

Two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced ground-based missile interceptors in California and Alaska were being brought online to protect against a long-range attack from North Korea. Pyongyang claimed through its official media this week that it’s put into combat posture “long-range artillery units strategic rocket units that will target all enemy object in U.S. invasionary bases on its mainland, Hawaii and Guam.”

Today, the U.S. took a couple of B-2 stealth bomber practice runs over South Korea — a message Washington branded a defensive drill and the North called invasion prep.

At today’s Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the B-2 flight was simply part of run-of-the-mill joint exercises with Seoul.

“I think their very provocative actions and belligerent tone, it has ratcheted up the danger, and we have to understand that reality,” Hagel said of the North. “We — the United States, South Koreans, all of the nations in — in that region of the world — are committed to a pathway to peace. And the North Koreans seem to be headed in a different direction here. So we will unequivocally defend and we are unequivocally committed to that alliance with South Korea, as well as our other allies in that region of the world. And we will be prepared — we have to be prepared to deal with any eventuality there.”

“…We have to take seriously every provocative, bellicose word and action that this new, young leader has taken so far since he’s come to power.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Washington isn’t concerned as much with the North’s reaction to the B-2 exercise as that of other actors in the region.

“The reaction to the B-2 that we’re most concerned about is not necessarily the reaction it might elicit in North Korea, but rather among our Japanese and Korean allies,” Dempsey said. “You know, those exercises are mostly to assure our allies that they can count on us to be prepared and to help them deter conflict.”

Hagel said “the North Koreans have to understand that what they’re doing is very dangerous.”

“And they have some options. They can take another approach to a better future, but what they’re doing now is not the way to do that. And we have security issues here that we have to protect and commitments in our security interests,” he said. “I don’t think we’re doing anything extraordinary or provocative or out of the orbit of what nations do to protect their own interests.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated the word of the day — “bellicose” — in giving much the same reason for the B-2 activity at today’s press briefing.

“What we have said for quite some time now, in the face of the bellicose rhetoric and threats that have been emanating from the North Koreans, is that we stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies in South Korea to ensure that their — that the interests of the United States and the allies of the United States remain protected,” Earnest said.

What’s different is the posture of shoring up America’s defenses even while the administration, as with most crises, aches to deal with North Korea on a diplomatic level and denies they’re being rattled into a military response.

“We don’t have any choice in defending this country but to anticipate worst-case scenarios. We do know the North Koreans have missile capability. We know that they have significant capability. And as we think through long-term threats, we have to plan, sure, for short term, but also for long term, and every decision that’s made — and the announcement that was made a couple of weeks ago wasn’t some knee-jerk reaction to the young leader’s threats in North Korea,” Hagel said.

“These are decision-making processes that evolve based on threats, potential threats. You only need to be wrong once. And I don’t know what president or what chairman or what secretary of defense wants to be wrong once when it comes to nuclear threats.”

Hagel called South Korean Minister of National Defense Kim Kwan Jin on Wednesday evening to “discuss the unwavering United States’ commitment to our alliance with the Republic of Korea, especially during this time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula,” according to a readout of the call from Pentagon Press Secretary George Little.

“The secretary highlighted the steadfast U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea, including extended deterrence capabilities, and pointed to the recently signed ROK-U.S. counter-provocation plan as a mechanism to enhance consultation and coordination of alliance responses to North Korean aggression,” Little said. “…The leaders also discussed the recently announced U.S. plan to increase U.S. ground-based interceptors and early warning and tracking radar in response to the North Korean threat.”

Dempsey said last week’s agreement wasn’t a direct response to North Korea’s latest provocations.

“This has been an ongoing effort to have a counter-provocation plan over the last two years in recognition of the stated position of the South Korean government that they no longer are willing to be provoked. And so we wanted to make sure we understood what that meant,” the chairman said.

Early Friday morning in the North, Kim met with generals and ordered a rocket preparation plan “to settle accounts with the U.S.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) reminded CNN viewers Wednesday evening that the “provocations have been pretty constant” from Pyongyang even if it looks like a recent escalation.

“What’s unusual though is now we have North Korea developing not only three stage ICBMs, but having nuclear capability, nuclear weapons. And they’re looking to miniaturize those and be able to put them on an ICBM, which would be a game changer. And this, of course, is of concern to the United States,” Royce said.

The chairman encouraged the implementation of sanctions such as those used for a short time in 2005, in reaction to North Korea printing counterfeit $100 U.S. currency.

The Treasury Department froze bank accounts to the point where the current Kim’s father couldn’t pay his generals or continue missile production.

“We ought to put those types of sanctions that briefly were put in place in 2005 because that would shut down a lot of activity in North Korea and we want to do that before they get the nuclear weapons,” Royce urged.

“I’ve been in North Korea. They’re all fending for themselves. The money goes into their weapons programs and that’s why it should be curtailed. That’s why the bank accounts should be shut down.”