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North Korea threatens to take 'special actions' against South Korea (+video)

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Today's North Korean tirade was worded to evoke memories – and to fuel fears of a sudden artillery barrage or even a short-range missile shot across the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the Korean War ended in an armistice in July 1953.

The Korean Central News Agency warned that attacks would involve “unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style” – turns of phrase contrived to keep South Koreans and their American allies guessing. The sense here is that North Korea might well be planning a third underground nuclear test after the humiliation of the failed rocket shot on April 13, two days ahead of the 100th anniversary of the North’s founding “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung.

Concerns for US commanders

One overriding question confronting US commanders is how to assess the role of the country’s new leader Kim Jong-un, how much power he really wields over his generals and how he’s likely to want to lead North Korea.

“Kim Jong-un does things that are different,” says Cardon. He cites Mr. Kim’s 20-minute address to the nation in the centennial ceremonies as a surprise considering that his father, Kim Jong-il, who died last December, hardly spoke in public.

Cardon is reluctant “to reach conclusions,” but there is no doubt the guessing game is a particular source of concern for the 28,500 US troops now stationed in South Korea preparing for South Korea’s armed forces to be ready by 2015 to take over operational command in the event of war. 

The transition from US to South Korean command presents extraordinary problems for Cardon, whose 10,000 troops form the core of US combat forces in South Korea. Some analysts doubt if the change from US to South Korean command will work out in the event of a second Korean War. 

Bruce Bechtol, author of books and studies on North Korea’s military structure, believes “there really is no ‘replacement’ command and control arrangement that can be as effective as the Combined Forces Command,” the top-most command, now led by a US four-star general.

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