S. Korean official predicted N. Korea urging embassy evacuations, said attack would follow


A February photo shows Kim Jong Un meeting with army officials at an undisclosed location. (KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

Today, North Korea urged a number of foreign embassies in Pyongyang to evacuate their staffs because the country would, according to the U.K.'s reading of the warning it received, "be unable to guarantee the safety of embassies and international organizations in the country in the event of conflict from April 10." In other words, North Korea is telling foreign diplomats, including that of nominally friendly Russia, "war might be coming, so you better skip town."

North Korea is known for issuing threats it doesn't see through and warning about wars that never come. Still, this move, potentially a first for North Korea, came as a big surprise.

But it wouldn't have been so surprising if you're a regular reader of the JoongAng Daily, a major South Korean broadsheet newspaper with a sizable readership and a reputation for leaning a touch to the right. Three weeks ago, JoongAng ran a story, citing a single, anonymous official with South Korean intelligence, predicting that this is exactly what would happen.

The South Korean intelligence official reportedly told JoongAng that North Korea would "inform foreign diplomatic missions in Pyongyang to pull out their citizens" as stage two of a three-stage process to push the Korean peninsula right up to, but not over, the brink of nuclear war. Stage one was "issuing war threats against the South and spreading the idea that a war is imminent."  Check.

This is the scary part, if you believe the report: Stage three is "a terrorist attack on a public installation in the South such as an airport, or an armed attack like the sinking of the Cheonan."

The Cheonan, a South Korean naval ship, was attacked in 2010, killing 46 sailors on board; Seoul firmly believes it was sunk by a North Korea mini-submarine. But perhaps even more unsettling is the idea of a public terrorist attack; it's not clear whether this would be something along the lines of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, when gunmen killed 166 civilians.

Before we get too worked up about this story, though, it's important to note that the conservative South Korean press, for all its many virtues, has a bit of a reputation for hyping thinly sourced "scoops" about its mysterious Northern neighbor. This report also claims that Kim Jong Un narrowly survived an assassination attempt last year, an eye-popping assertion that has not been verified. So you should take it with a big grain of salt.

Perhaps what's potentially most significant about the report is not the question of whether the South Korean intelligence source is correct about what's coming next, but rather whether Seoul shares this one official's view and might act on the suggestion that a terrorist attack might be imminent. If that is Seoul's position — if South Korea believes that the North is on track to kill some number of its citizens and maybe its civilians — then will it feel compelled to do something to preempt that attack?

It seems unlikely North Korea really does want war, but it does appear to want to push everyone right up to the brink. The big danger is that some unexpected event will push the Korean peninsula over into a larger conflict that nobody really wants. As a number of analysts have warned, a preemptive strike from South Korea, perhaps meant to deter the Cheonan-style attack it might believe it coming, is exactly the sort of unwelcome event that might escalate things out of control.

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Max Fisher · April 5, 2013