North Korea sends a missile
warning By Donald Kirk
SEOUL- North Korea is turning up the
tension meter on the Korean Peninsula with fresh
challenges to South Korea's newly installed
The question - after North
Korea fired a volley of short-range missiles off
South Korea's west coast on Friday - is how far
North and South are ready to go in asserting tough
As has so often
happened over the years of uneasy peace on the
peninsula since the signing of the truce that
ended the Korean War in 1953, the two Koreas may
be veering toward another crisis in what has
largely been a war of words punctuated by
occasional armed clashes.
If the latest
gestures follow form, all the great powers with a
the Korean Peninsula will have their negotiators
scurrying from capital to capital, armed with
statements, giving press conferences and holding
meetings until calm returns in a fiery display of
demands, recriminations and good old-fashioned
That, at any rate, is the
scenario is that North Korea may rev up tensions
to the level of bloodshed if conservative South
Korean President Lee Myung-bak follows through on
his avowed refusal to provide aid for the North
unless Pyongyang comes up with some meaningful
gestures of its own.
For starters, Lee
wants to hold back on humanitarian aid until North
Korea returns some of the 500 or so South Koreans
held in the North, most of them fishermen whose
boats have strayed into North Korean waters, but
also some prisoners left over from the Korean War.
Then, before coming up with the enormous
assistance promised last year in the six-nation
agreements on North Korea's nuclear program, Lee
says he wants to be sure the North has disabled
and dismantled the whole program.
now, the entire process of inter-Korean
reconciliation seems to be on hold, if not in
reverse, though a presidential spokesman did say
the government sees the missile-firing as "merely
a part of ordinary military training".
choice of the West or Yellow Sea as the site for
training was a reminder of shootouts in June of
1999 and again in June 2002 in which dozens of
sailors on both sides died. At stake is the
refusal of either side to budge on South Korea's
insistence on the legitimacy of the "Northern
Limit line", drawn on maps by the United Nations
command after the signing of the Korean War
The line marks the point below
which the South says North Korean vessels are
banned - a critical issue during spring crabbing
season when the North Koreans are looking for all
they can get for their starving people.
South Korea's officials intimated that the
missile-firing was not altogether unexpected.
Seoul's Yonhap news agency quotes officials as
saying North Korea had declared a restricted area
in the sea for two days.
They estimate the
North Koreans fired four short-range missiles with
a range of about 46 kilometers in mid-morning. The
missiles were all said to be of the Russian Styx
design - presumably manufactured in North Korea
long after the era when the former Soviet Union
provided much of the technology needed for North
Korea's own highly successful missile program.
If North Korea stops there, the episode
will be just another reminder, little noted by the
rest of the world and soon forgotten in the South
as well, of the hell the North could wreak if it
chose to unleash just a few of its 1,000 missiles
on the South. Most of the missiles, short-range,
medium and long-range, are within 80 kilometers of
the line between the demilitarized zone that has
separated the Korean Peninsula since the end of
the Korean War, and the medium-range missiles
could hit targets in Japan as well. Not that
South Korea is totally unprepared. In fact, the
South's highest-ranking general came out with a
rather threatening remark this week that would
have been impossible for any officer to make
publicly before Lee's inauguration on February 25.
General Kim Tae-young, at a National
Assembly hearing on his nomination as chairman of
the joint chiefs of staff, said his people had
plans ready for use any time it seemed necessary
to take out the North's nuclear facilities.
Was Kim raising the bogey of a
"pre-emptive strike" - the dreaded deed that North
Korea regularly accuses the US of planning?
Apparently so. If North Korea were on the
verge of nuking the South, he said, "We would
identify possible locations of nuclear weapons and
make a precise attack in advance." The purpose, he
said, would be "to prevent North Korea's nuclear
weapons from exploding in our territory".
The general's remarks, the most specific
reminder the South has ever made of military
retaliation against the North, were especially
timely considering the North's reluctance to live
up to what the US and South Korea see as the terms
of the six-nation agreement.
direct its rhetorical fire at South Korea, North
Korea blames the United States for disrupting
disablement of its nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
The issue is the North's refusal to come up with a
list of its nuclear inventory, and its deals with
foreign clients, as called for in the nuclear
agreement of February 13 of last year. That list,
says the US, must convey a full understanding of
the North's project for developing warheads with
enriched uranium, the basis for the whole nuclear
crisis that erupted in 2002.
what does not exist exists", said a North Korean
spokesman, the US "delays the settlement of the
nuclear issue" with "serious impact on the
disablement of nuclear facilities". In other
words, after all the talks and talks about talks,
the nuclear deal could come undone.
in South Korea believes a second Korean War is
about to break out, but North Korea has plenty of
ways to remind South Korea of the options if Lee
refuses to back down from his hard line.
Although the North has yet to turn the
full force of its rhetoric on Lee, the message
came through clearly in the expulsion of South
Korean officials from the special economic zone at
the historic city of Kaesong, 60 kilometers north
of Seoul just across the line with North Korea.
Told they had three days to leave, 11 South Korean
officials returned to the South several hours
after getting the notice.
That move came
after South Korea said the North had to give up
its nukes before more South Korean companies could
set up shop in the zone. As it is, the move places
in jeopardy the outlook of the 69 small South
Korean companies that employ 23,000 North Koreans
turning out light industrial products at plants
inside the zone. North Korea does all the hiring
and tightly limits the movements of the South
Korean managers at the companies, few of which are
In a game of dare and
double-dare, the next step will be for South Korea
to vote for a resolution in the UN General
Assembly decrying the North's human-rights record.
South Korea has previously abstained from UN votes
against North Korea - except after the North Korea
tested a nuclear warhead in October 2006.
UN votes against North Korea typically
evoke rhetorical flourishes from Pyongyang. South
Korea's new Foreign Minister, Yu Myung-hwan,
visiting Washington, came out with some rhetoric
of his own, warning, "Time and patience are
And then what?
North Korea should attack," said General Burwell
Baxter Bell, commander of the 28,000 US troops in
South Korea, "we will defeat them quickly and
decisively and end the fight on our terms". With
more than a million North Koreans still under
arms, backed up by all those missiles, that's a
claim no one in the South wants to put to the
Kirk has been covering Korea - and the
confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for
more than 30 years.