By Kim Kyu-won and Lee Soon-hyuk, staff writers
North Korea declared that it would initiate “special actions by revolutionary military forces” against President Lee Myung-bak and certain conservative news outlets.
The statement is seen as stemming from the longstanding tension in inter-Korean relations and irresponsible attempts by the North and South Korean governments to use the situation for domestic political advantage.
The Korean Central News Agency (North Korea’s official news agency) reported the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Supreme Command special operations group Tuesday as saying that “the wrath of [North Korea‘s] military and people toward Lee Myung-bak has reached the heavens.
"Special actions by our revolutionary military forces to crush the indiscriminate provocation will soon commence," the agency quoted the team as saying.
The KPA also said, "The target of the special action is Lee Myung-bak and his traitorous group of rats, who along with the conservative media are chewing away at the pillars of public trust." It specified four news organizations: the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper and the KBS, MBC, and YTN broadcasting networks.
The statement by Lee that North Korea gave as the reason for its extreme declaration was a reference in an Apr. 16 radio broadcast to the amount of food North Korea could have bought with the money it spent on its recent rocket launch, and the starvation of North Koreans.
Lee also mentioned the possibility of a North Korean provocation during an Apr. 19 visit to the Agency for Defense Development in Daejeon. And his remarks about the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East, North Korean human rights, and farmland reforms made during an Apr. 20 visit to Institute for Unification Education in Seoul appear to have been a decisive factor in Pyongyang’s harsh rhetoric.
Experts said both North and South bear responsibility for the current tension.
Inje University professor Kim Yeon-chul said, "Whenever problems arise in inter-Korean relations, it’s always safe to say it’s due to mutual reasons. During Lee Myung-bak’s term in office, both North Korea and South Korea have viewed inter-Korean relations as essentially a lost cause and said all kinds of provocative things for their own domestic political ends," Kim said.
In North Korea’s case, the domestic political objective is to ensure the stability of the new Kim Jong-un regime. For Seoul, the concern is the possibility of another conservative administration being elected after Lee’s term ends.
Some analysts suggested South Korea may be a scapegoat for Pyongyang as it resolves its international relations dilemma in the wake of its rocket launch.
"I get the impression that with the rocket launch issue, North Korea is trying to turn this into a conflict with South Korea rather than one with the United Nations or the United States," said University of North Korean Studies professor Yang Mu-jin.
"President Lee Myung-bak’s hard-line remarks are providing North Korea with just the right pretext for this," Yang added.
Observers also said attention should be paid to the fact that Pyongyang is currently in a transitional period. North Korea has always been sensitive to criticisms of its leader and system, but it is especially sensitive to small provocations from outside because it is currently transitioning between regimes.
Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, said Lee’s speech at the Institute for Unification Education ”seems to be full of hidden meaning.
“To North Korea, it might seem like the South Korean government intends to rattle the North Korean administration during its power succession,” Chang explained.
Experts ventured varying predictions on the nature of the “special action of revolutionary military force” described by North Korea.
If it turns out to be a military provocation, it would seem to suggest use of the long-range artillery that is known to have been concentrated around the armistice line, since the announcement said, “Once initiated, it will be three to four minutes, or indeed less than that.” The artillery in question is capable of striking the greater Seoul area within one to two minutes of its launch.
A representative example is the 240 mm multiple rocket launchers, hundreds of units of which are known to have been positioned at front line North Korean bases recently. With a range of up to 60 km, the artillery fired from them could reach as far as Seongnam, a southern suburb of Seoul.
But analysts expressed doubts about the likelihood of this, since it would mean all-out war.
There are a number of other worrying possibilities besides a military provocation. Pyongyang’s citing of particular news outlets as targets for special action might indicate the possibility of terrorist action through inside agents. Another possibility would be a provocation using submarines, which could produce a strong effect with a lower chance of triggering all-out war.
Experts also suggested the action may take the form of cyber-terrorism, an electromagnetic wave attack, or an attack on electrical facilities.
Even observers in the military said they were “unfamiliar” with the Korean People‘s Army Supreme Command special operation unit, which was given as the agent behind the special action. Also standing out is the fact that it is affiliated with the Supreme Command and not the General Reconnaissance Bureau, which is tasked with South Korean operations, since the former is a war organization.
Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyeong-seok said, “North Korea recently carried out a long-range missile launch, and now it is making unacceptable attacks and threats over the South Korean government’s legitimate advice in response to this.
"We are concerned about the possibility of this worsening inter-Korean relations and raising tensions, and we urge North Korea to immediately cease this kind of provocative behavior," Kim added.
Kim Yeon-chul said, "The reason South Korea has to exercise patience in inter-Korean relations is not because it lacks strength, but because it has far more to lose if a military conflict occurs.
“Rather than giving up completely on inter-Korean relations, President Lee Myung-bak needs to act responsibly and manage the political situation to the last,” Kim added.
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