SEOUL - In the duel between North and South Korea, the question now is who will
pull the trigger first? The answer may be neither, but don't count on it. The
dueling now focuses on two quite different flashpoints.
The first is the West or Yellow Sea, where North Korea has vowed to open fire
against any South Korean vessel intruding in its waters.
One issue there is how to define which waters are North Korean. The North
refuses to recognize the Northern Limit Line, set by the United Nations Command
after the Korean War (1950-1953) and
challenged by North Korea in bloody gun battles in June 1999 and June 2002. A
North Korean boat was sunk in the former incident, killing at least 40 sailors
on board. Six sailors died on a South Korean patrol boat in the second battle.
It's almost June again, the height of the crabbing season in the fish-rich seas
and the month when the North is most likely to threaten South Korea's defense
of the line, including islands wrested from North Korean troops in the Korean
The announcement by the North Korean command that it's abrogating a safeguard
agreement reached between North and South in 2004 to stop "accidental"
exchanges of shots may or may not be mere rhetoric. The agreement was anyway
more or less meaningless, since it seems North Korean commanders were able to
meticulously plan an attack in March when a midget submarine torpedoed a South
Korean corvette, sinking it and killing 46 of its 104 crew members.
Both sides are likely to be more inclined than ever to open fire in the wake of
that episode. South Korea is staging exercises with an emphasis on
anti-submarine warfare and increasing patrols in which the orders are to fire
warning shots first - and then shoot at their targets. In the current
atmosphere, commanders on both sides may not want to play a waiting game.
If the Yellow Sea is an obvious battleground, however, almost anywhere along
the 248-kilometer-long demilitarized zone that's divided the Korean peninsula
since the end of the Korean War could erupt in gunfire. That's possible quite
soon if South Korea makes good on its notion of switching on mega-loudspeakers
capable of spewing forth propaganda for the benefit of tens of thousands of
North Korean soldiers within shooting distance.
North Korea has said it will respond to the verbal volleys with live fire
targeting the loudspeakers. The North Koreans presumably know where they are
since they used to shout out the propaganda until both sides agreed to stop the
shouting six years ago. That was at the height of the decade of the "Sunshine"
policy of North-South reconciliation initiated by the late president, Kim
Dae-jung, in 1998.
South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, has turned the clock back
on Sunshine since his inauguration a decade later, in 2008. This week he
suspended North-South trade, cut off most humanitarian aid, barred South
Koreans from visiting the North and opened a global diplomatic offensive in
which he's trying to get the rest of the world, notably China, to go along with
condemnation of North Korea and strengthened sanctions.
The diplomatic campaign won't upset the North Koreans nearly as much, however,
as propaganda falling on the ears of their own troops. Lee faces a serious test
of nerve. Will he dare order the loudspeakers to blast away knowing the North
Koreans may take potshots at them?
And if the North Koreans do fire, will South Korean gunners fire back at the
North Korean positions? There's no telling when the shooting would stop, or
whether North Korean troops would try to challenge the South Koreans on the
Such an exchange could seriously be the opening shots of the second Korean War.
In other words, just as this society is basking at all-time economic heights,
the peninsula could plunge again into deadly chaos with thousands if not
millions of lives at stake.
It's difficult actually to imagine that scenario. Perhaps Lee will hold off on
the loudspeaker broadcasts. Or perhaps they will turn on traditional Korean
music familiar to North and South Koreans. It's just as easy to imagine the
sounds of Arirang, the haunting song that's sung by Koreans everywhere,
as it is to conjure the squawking of imprecations for North Korean soldiers to
desert their positions and rise up against their masters.
North Korea, though, has another nasty card to play, as the South Koreans are
well aware. The North has already expelled a handful of South Korean officials
from the Kaesong economic complex just across the line about 64 kilometers
north of Seoul.
Now the North is saying it may cut off access to the complex for the nearly
1,000 technicians and engineers who run the factories in the zone, which are
owned by South Korean medium and small enterprises. More than 40,000 North
Koreans slave away at the assembly lines in a deal in which the South Koreans
are paying the North Koreans upwards of $50 million a year in salaries that the
workers never see.
The fear is that North Korea, in a showdown, would hold the South Korean workers inside the zone, keeping them as hostages until the South agreed to
innumerable demands beginning with revision of the Northern Limit Line. That
fear is enough to raise doubts here about the wisdom of annoying North Korea's
leaders with unbridled propaganda assaults.
Such concerns extend to the sacrosanct Joint Security Area in the truce village
of Panmunjom that's next to Kaesong. About 600 troops are responsible for
rotating on guard duty at Kaesong in a largely ceremonial role. Among them are
40 American troops, the last of a much larger US force that used to patrol all
along the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone.
Over the years Panmunjom has become a standard tourist destination. Hundreds of
tourists go there every day from Seoul, and tourists also come down from the
northern side. They all have to remain on either side of a line that cuts
through the middle of the security area. A highlight of trips from the southern
side is to file into a small one-room structure on the line and step briefly
onto the northern side.
Visitors are briefed before they get there to do as told and not step around
the South Korean guards. At the end of a briefing that I attended on Thursday,
a South Korean lieutenant surprised us by saying matters were now "tense."
Then, after we had filed in and out of the building on the North-South line, we
were told our bus would not drive by the "bridge of no return" over which
prisoners had been exchanged at the end of the Korean War. The bridge, a
standard stop on visits to Panmunjom, would also expose visitors to the minimal
chance of capture by the North Koreans.
It's safe to assume South Korea will bar tours to Panmunjom if the risks seem
serious. For North Korea, though, the chance to seize tourists as hostages
would be too tempting in a showdown that still seems almost unimaginable. As
unimaginable, perhaps, as the North Korean invasion of the South in June 1950.
Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly
publishedKorea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.
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