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     Mar 29, 2008
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 government.

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 confrontational policies.

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 stake


in 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 rhetoric.

That, at any rate, is the optimistic scenario.

The worst-case 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.

As of 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".

The 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 armistice.

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.

Rather than 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.

By "insisting 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.

No one 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 making profits.

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 running out."

And then what?

"If 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 test.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

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