WASHINGTON — North Korea's decision Tuesday to sever all ties with South Korea and threaten military action in disputed waters following the torpedoing of a South Korean warship confronts President Obama with another international crisis that his administration doesn't want or need.
Although the isolated, communist North's behavior is notoriously unpredictable and sometimes seems irrational, all-out war between it and the democratic, capitalist South still seems unlikely, analysts said, given the stakes.
Nevertheless, tensions on the Korean peninsula, where some 28,500 U.S. troops provide a tripwire for U.S. military intervention if the North attacks, are likely to rise in coming days.
North Korea would likely lose any conflict with the South, but not before inflicting massive damage on South Korea's capital, Seoul, a 30-minute drive south of the demilitarized zone that's divided the two Koreas since 1953. U.S. intelligence officials estimate that 11,000 North Korean artillery pieces are in sheltered positions within range of Seoul and probably could destroy much of the city before they could be knocked out.
"The tensions certainly have increased," but there is no sign that North Korea is mobilizing its 1.2 million-strong military, said a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity in order to speak more freely. "They have masses (of troops) down on the DMZ (demilitarized zone), but they do a normal shift or rotation," he said.
South Korean officials said they were bracing for fresh provocations from the North, especially at sea. On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak blamed North Korea for the March 26 sinking of the corvette Cheonan, which killed 46 of its crew, and said he was curbing trade with North Korea and banning its ships from transiting South Korean waters.
"That could get sort of ugly if (North Korean vessels) don't stop, and chances are they won't," said Art Brown, formerly the top U.S. intelligence analyst for East Asia.