N. Korea doesn’t respond militarily, but later attack remains a possibility

Posted on : 2010-12-21 15:18 KST Modified on : 2010-12-21 15:18 KST
Diplomatic pressure from China seems to have played a key role
 who has been visiting Pyongyang as unofficial envoy since last Thursday
who has been visiting Pyongyang as unofficial envoy since last Thursday

By Son Won-je, Staff Writer

There was no counterattack from the North Korea’s military to the resumption of South Korean artillery exercises at Yeonpyeong Island on Monday. The crisis of a large-scale armed clash between South Korea and North Korea appears to have been avoided for the time being. However, many analysts are saying the possibility remains for surprise military action by the North at a later date.

North Korea’s military said on Monday it “was not worth reacting” to South Korea’s live-fire drills conducted on Yeonpyeong Island, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

“We felt it was no worth reacting to every single cowardly provocation by the South,” the KCNA quoted the North Korean People’s Army Supreme Command as saying. However, the KCNA threatened again that its retaliatory strikes more powerful than first artillery attack could easily annihilate the strongholds of the U.S. and South Korean warmongers.”

In a Dec. 17 message in the name of its chief delegate to the inter-Korean general-level military talks, North Korea threatened that "unpredictable second and third defensive strikes will be inflicted if [South Korea] carries out artillery firing at Yeonpyeong Island." Analysts say that North Korea's failure to act according to this warning following the exercises Monday appears to reflect consideration of two main factors.

The first of these is the military burden. In contrast with the situation during the Nov. 23 artillery attack on the island, South Korea undertook thorough military preparations before the Monday exercises. With the previous attack, South Korean forces were faced with a surprise attack after taking a low view of the probability of a North Korean attack. In contrast, Monday's exercises were carried out with the latest F-15K fighter planes readied for sorties. North Korea's conventional firepower is weak compared to the South's. Without the benefit of surprise, it could sustain heavy losses and get caught up in a controversy over where responsibility for the defeat lies.

The diplomatic burden was likely to be another considerable factor, according to analysts. If a North Korean military attack took place in a situation where observers from the UN Command were present on Yeonpyeong Island, there is a strong likelihood that international condemnation would focus on the North.

North Korea had already achieved something of a diplomatic accomplishment when a meeting of the UN Security Council convened to discuss requests that South Korea refrain from carrying out the exercises. Analysts say North Korea may have determined that there was no need to engage in military actions that could shift the focus of the diplomatic debate over to itself.

It is also being suggested that North Korea's relationship with China was another important consideration. China has repeatedly called for restraint from its ally for the sake of political stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Korea National Defense University professor Kim Yeon-soo said, "North Korea was unlikely to make any immediate military response that would risk causing a loss of face for China, its biggest supporter."

The question remains as to how long North Korea's military silence will last. Prior to Monday's exercises, it had issued statements and messages from various organizations on numerous occasions, all condemning South Korea and vowing retaliation. Observers say the possibility exists that while it may not act immediately, it will attempt to act according to its declaration at a later date.

With regard to this, senior adviser Tony Namkung, who accompanied New Mexico governor Bill Richardson on a recent trip to North Korea, told the New York Times that "there is no doubt in my mind that there will be a response" from North Korea.

"The only issue is whether they will once again target civilians, or deliberately try to avoid hitting civilian targets," Namkung added.

Some observers are predicting that even if North Korea chooses to turn the waters around the Northern Limit Line into a disputed area, it will carry out large-scale artillery exercises at sea in order to avoid giving South Korea a pretext for retaliation. The Korean People's Army began its winter exercises at the start of December.

Another possibility would be a provocation at the Military Demarcation Line targeting South Korean propaganda placed at the armistice line, including a Christmas tree that is set to go up on Aegibong Peak on Tuesday.

In contrast, other observers are cautiously predicting that North Korea will shift the focus of its offensive from military action to diplomatic efforts, beginning with its expression of a forward-thinking position on the nuclear issue through Richardson.

Peace Network representative Cheong Wook-sik said, "Right now, a military clash and a diplomatic offensive are both possibilities."

"The key variable in how the situation unfolds is whether Seoul, after a certain cooling-off period for both sides, can examine and accept the content of the diplomatic solution offered this time by North Korea," Cheong said.

But the prevailing view is that there is unlikely to be any concession from North Korea on the issue of halting and verifying of its uranium enrichment program, which experts are predicting will be a key item of contention.

Inje University Professor Kim Yeon-chul said, "Because there is such a difference between North Korea's position on the uranium enrichment issue and the expectations of South Korea and the U.S., it won't be much help to approach it in technical terms."

"It is an issue that will require a political resolution, for example with the U.S.-China summit scheduled for January of next year," Kim added.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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