North Korea fills the air with threats
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - North Korea may be off the United States State Department's list
of nations sponsoring terrorism, but its warning to South Korea about the
safety of flights through its air space has escalated fears of a surprise North
Korean strike to new levels.
Inconceivable though it may sound for North Korea to fire on a flight carrying
passengers to South Korea, the North's threat is drawing demands for the State
Department to put North Korea's name back on the list from which former
president George W Bush ordered its removal last June.
Officials at the State Department, National Security Council and Pentagon seem
to agree, however, that such a strong response to
North Korean rhetoric would be premature. The State Department in particular is
falling back on a word that's come up a number of times lately to describe
North Koreas's conduct - "unhelpful".
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her swing through Northeast Asia
last month, described North Korean rhetoric as "unhelpful", to which a State
Department spokesman added "distinctly" as a sign of increasing worries that
North Korea may try to pull off a violent surprise in the near future.
Critics of reconciliation diplomacy complain that the use of the term
"distinctly unhelpful" will do nothing to dissuade North Korea to retreat from
the increasingly tough line it's adopted of late; Pyongyang seems intent on a
policy of "all-out confrontation" with South Korea.
Conservatives inside the Pentagon and the armed forces elsewhere say placing
North Korea back on the list of nations sponsoring terrorism may serve as a
warning against an act of violence that some observers describe as "an incident
waiting to happen".
Analysts cite one precedent for North Korea firing on an unarmed civilian
passenger plane: the bombing over the Andaman Sea on November 29, 1987, of a
Korean Air plane with 115 people aboard. It was that incident, perpetrated by
two North Koreans, that led the State Department to include North Korea on its
list of state sponsors of terrorism.
North Korea made its removal from the list a firm condition for following
through on its agreement to provide a complete inventory of its nuclear
program, and the US yielded in hopes the North would move ahead on disablement
- and then the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities and the six to 12
warheads it's already thought to have produced.
As has happened so often in the tortuous history of dealings with North Korea,
the agreement is coming unglued. North Korea has been adamant against
conditions demanded by the US for verification of all it's doing to disable its
program, has refused to remove evidence for scientific scrutiny elsewhere, and
in recent weeks has said it will not give up its nuclear warheads under any
North Korean outrage appears to have been fueled by two sets of simultaneous
circumstances, according to analysts in the US and in Seoul.
One is the conservative policy of South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, who
since his inauguration in February of last year has conditioned all South
Korean aid to North Korea on the North's agreement to a realistic agreement on
As a result, South Korea has stopped shipping rice and fertilizer to the North,
to the tune of 500,000 tons a year, as it had done during the previous decade
of liberal leadership initiated by president Kim Dae-jung from 1998 to 2003 and
succeeded by the equally liberal Roh Moo-hyun.
The second set of circumstances is the illness of North Korea's leader, Kim
Jong-il, who's believed to have suffered a stroke last August.
North Korea's propaganda mill has been churning out photographs of Kim
purporting to show him on a record number of visits this year to military
units, farms and factories. However, the absence of video of Kim in motion or
any sound of his voice fuels the belief that the photographs are a cover-up.
Ostensibly, Kim is in control while in the process of turning over power to one
of his three sons. The selected son will eventually become a front man for the
generals in whom Kim has long placed his trust as chairman of the North's
National Defense Commission.
North Korea's warning against civilian aircraft goes beyond recent moves to
prepare a long-range Taepodong-2 missile for launching into orbit from a site
on the northeastern coast.
North Korea has sought to explain the launch as necessary to place a satellite
into orbit, the same excuse North Korea gave for launching Taeopodong-1 from
the same site on August 31, 1998. The earlier Taepodong flew over the main
Japanese island of Honshu before plummeting into the Pacific without launching
a satellite - even as North Korean rhetoric at the time said the satellite was
in orbit and broadcasting songs of praise for Kim Jong-il and his long-ruling
father, Kim Il-sung.
North Korea failed in its only other attempt at launching a Taepodong when a
Taepodong-2 crashed into the sea within 40 seconds after its launch on July 6,
2006, three months before the North conducted its one and only nuclear test, an
underground blast on October 9, 2006, that was far weaker than expected.
Officials in Washington fear, however, that North Korea will sooner or later
master the technique for launching a long-range missile, just as the North has
developed the expertise to produce and fire relatively short-range Scud and
The fear is the North will then be able to affix a warhead laden with the
nuclear, chemical or biological materiel that it's known to be developing in
programs that attract almost no mention while diplomats and military
intelligence analysts focus on the nukes.
North Korean strategists appear to have hit on the notion of threatening
passenger aircraft in a challenge to the United States and South Korea to call
off annual joint war games next week called "Key Resolve and Foal Eagle".
For the first time in seven years, North Korean and American generals have met
this week at the truce village of Panmunjom at which North Korea has demanded
the US cancel the war games and desist from "provocations" by US troops along
the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has divided the Korean Peninsula since the
Korean War in the early 1950s.
The US has denied any moves along the border, an easy charge to ignore since
only a handful of American soldiers remain in the immediate area. The few US
troops there are members of an American battalion that performs ceremonial
duties, manning the line in full view of busloads of tourists who look across
the border from south of the line.
American military commanders in recent years have devoted much time to
convincing South Korean defense ministers and generals of the wisdom of for
pulling the US Second Infantry Division from its historic bases about 35
kilometers south of the DMZ to a newly built base at Pyongtaek, 60 kilometers
south of Seoul. The US now has 28,500 troops in South Korea, down from 37,000
eight years ago, and has assured South Korean leaders no more troops will be
South Korean and US war games, however, call for live firing on ranges several
miles south of the DMZ. The sound of artillery pieces will reverberate across
the border, clearly audible to North Korean troops, when the exercises open on
The war games involve about 26,000 troops, including US fighter planes flying
off a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The US command is publicizing the event
with press tours, briefings and photo-ops, all to show the potential for a
massive response should North Korean forces attack the South.
The immediate question is whether North Korea, during the exercises, will begin
to make good on any of its threats - by test-firing the Taepodong-2 that it's
moved to the launch site; by firing on South Korean vessels off the west coast
in the Yellow Sea in disputed waters; or, as a last resort, by actually
harassing if not firing on civilian aircraft.
South Korea's two carriers, Korean Air and Asiana, are taking no chances. Both
have diverted aircraft on international flights from North Korean air space,
causing the planes to take an hour longer to reach the main international
airport of Incheon, by the Yellow Sea about 30 kilometers west of Seoul.
Although it's hard to imagine such an incident, the peninsula's history is full
of seemingly impossible events:
Aside from the 1987 bombing of the Korean Air plane, there was the hijacking of
a domestic Korean Air passenger plane in 1969 with 51 people on board. The
plane was forced to land in the east coast port of Wonsan, and a dozen people,
including the entire crew, were never released.
Then there was the shoot-down on April 15, 1969, of an unarmed US Air Force
surveillance aircraft about 140 kilometers off the coast with 31 men aboard,
all of whom perished. In recent years, North Korean old-model MiG fighters,
with barely enough fuel for training flights, have pursued similar aircraft off
The most notorious incident, of course, was the shoot-down on September 1, 1983
- not by North Koreans but by a Soviet fighter pilot - of a Korean Air plane
that strayed into Soviet air space over Sakhalin Island with 269 passengers and
crew, all of whom perished.
South Korean officials have been denouncing the latest North Korean threats as
"inhumane" and "violations of international law". In any case, the North has
already reaped publicity and negotiating advantage as yet another US special
envoy, Stephen Bosworth, traverses the region, arriving on Saturday in Seoul
after talks in Beijing.
Bosworth is pursuing the six-party talks, not held since last year, including
China, the host, as well as the US, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas.
Increasingly, his quest appears irrelevant as attention focuses on whatever
North Korea will dream up next to create fear and consternation in the region.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.