North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observes military exercises© AFP 2013/ KCNA via KNS
NATO deputy chief Alexander Vershbow© AFP 2013/ CHIP SOMODEVILLA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA
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MOSCOW, March 29 (RIA Novosti) – A senior NATO official said on Friday that military conflict between the United States and North Korea was not inevitable, but that Washington and its allies are capable of deterring that outcome.
NATO deputy chief Alexander Vershbow told Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy in an interview that Kim Jong Un’s relative inexperience as leader of North Korea added an element of unpredictability.
“One can never be certain, particularly when they have a new young untested leader,” Vershbow said.
Tensions between the West and North Korea reached new heights after Pyongyang threatened to unleash military action this week in response to drills by thousands of US and South Korean troops across the border that were intended as a show of force.
The annual large-scale military exercises, codenamed Key Resolve, began on March 11 and involved around 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 US troops.
Officials in Washington said the exercise would demonstrate the readiness of the United States to deter against aggression on the Korean peninsula.
Vershbow said he believed that stance would yield a breakthrough in standoff with Pyongyang.
“The North Koreans have been famous for very extravagant rhetoric and belligerent threats, but at the same time the United States and its allies I think have a strong deterrent capability to prevent any military action,” Vershbow said.
“North Korea has gotten the message very clearly from the United States, from South Korea that any military provocation will be met with a decisive response,” he said.
Prior to the exercises, North Korea had threatened the United States with a preemptive nuclear strike amid warnings that it plans to terminate the Korean War Armistice Agreement. It also warned of retaliatory countermeasures if the United States and South Korea went ahead with the drills.
On Friday, North Korea placed its strategic rocket forces on standby to strike US and South Korean targets.
Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia, acknowledged North Korea’s significant military capability and its long-term policy of prioritizing defense over all other issues, but said it still remains unclear what offensive potential the regime possesses.
“They’ve tested long-range missiles, although they’re still very much at the early stage of deploying these missiles,” Vershbow said.
“How much damage they could actually carry out against the territory of the United States is not yet clear, but they certainly can do a lot of damage to South Korea,” he said.
Russia weighed in on the souring climate on Friday by criticizing war games around the Korean peninsula as a destabilizing factor that could lead to conflict.
In a veiled reference to the United States and South Korea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged all parties involved in the Korean standoff to refrain from muscle-flexing.
"We are alarmed that along with the adequate reaction from the UN Security Council and the collective reaction of the international community, unilateral action is being taken around North Korea that involves increased military activity,” he said.
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The United States keeps 180 B61 thermonuclear bombs at six air force bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, which can be delivered to their targets by F-15E and F16 fighters. Germany and Italy use Tornado fighters which can also carry these thermonuclear bombs. Russian generals would be careless to ignore these obvious national security risks and to not try to prevent a hypothetical nuclear strike.