SEOUL - South Korean insistence on going through with live-fire artillery
drills on Monday off the same island that North Korea shelled on November 23
raises a problem to which there may be no clear answer. When do you escalate
from war games to serious reprisals? What do you do if the North Koreans
inflict more casualties, not many, but a few? For that matter, what happens if
they stage a gunfight somewhere else - perhaps along the demilitarized zone
(DMZ) that stretches 257 kilometers across the peninsula, running through
scenes of the bloodiest battles of the Korean War?
The Americans talk about options, about military planning, about modern
weaponry. In fact, all that hardware would convince the North Koreans not to do
anything so foolish and risky as to go to
all-out war with South Korea. But we're not talking about a "war". The issue is
that of isolated strikes, episodes that make headlines but don't interfere with
the lives of the 50 million South Koreans to whom the shooting remains a
That's where the armchair strategists, politicians and military people don't
have the answers. One problem is one can never be quite sure what the Americans
are thinking. President Barack Obama has surprised American leftists by seeming
firm in his pronouncements on North Korea. He reaffirmed the alliance most
recently by approving the order to send the aircraft carrier USS George
Washington, a 97,000-ton nuclear-powered monster with 80 jet fighters
on its decks, at the head of a US strike force to participate in war games with
South Korean warships in the Yellow Sea.
The decision was intended to show the US shoulder-to-shoulder with the South
Koreans - willing to defy the Chinese view that the Yellow Sea is an extension
of China - but what will the US do if the conflict widens and South Korea asks
the US, with its powerful Seventh Air Force at Osan, south of Seoul, to join
The US strategy all along has called for diplomatic appeals that recognize
Chinese power while stressing how much the US wants to avoid hostilities.
American ambassador in Seoul Kathleen Stephens, in line with a US diplomatic
offensive initiated after the North Korean barrage on hapless Yeonpyeong
Island, clearly believes China holds the cards. "We hope China will work with
us to send a clear and unmistakable message," she told a luncheon of American
business people, and persuade the North "to end their provocative actions".
Those remarks did not stop the commander of the 28,500 US troops in Korea,
General Walter Sharp, from outlining plans for combating immediate as well as
long-range threats against "a belligerent North Korea armed with nuclear
weapons". He promised "more combined exercises" with South Korean forces "in
strategic locations” as US and South Korean forces sought "ways to further
strengthen our exercises to deter a whole range of attacks".
The best response to asymmetric warfare is to pinpoint supply points, gun
positions and harbors and go after them with air strikes and artillery rounds.
South Korea had fighters zooming overhead during Monday's exercise, but would
they really hit targets in the North in response to a North Korean response?
What if North Korea then turned its artillery on the Seoul-Incheon complex?
Might the North also fire at population centers across the DMZ - or maybe stage
a single attack on a South Korean guard post? How will the US and South Korea
Eventually, in the view of American and South Korean commanders, the US and
South Korea have to set a "red line" that marks the point beyond which they
will not let the North get away with more surprises. They believe they have to
challenge North Korea, supported by its Chinese ally, to accept the risk of a
war that would serve no one's interests. By now, North and South Korea have
both raised the stakes with challenges that are making it difficult for either
side to back down. However much North Korea fulminates, South Korean analysts
believe South Korea had to go through with the exercises as planned.
The North Korean threat of reprisals came at a great moment for New Mexico
governor Bill Richardson. In Pyongyang on a long weekend visit, with a CNN team
in tow, he urged his hosts not to stage a repetition of last month's attack on
Yeonpyeong Island, in which two South Korean marines and two civilians were
killed. He also yearned to glimpse the North Korean nuclear complex in
Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, where North Korea has nearly completed a facility
with a 20-megawatt reactor for producing highly enriched uranium. North Korea
showed off the facility in November, two weeks before the Yeonpyeong attack, to
a US delegation led by nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker.
The uranium program marks a major step beyond North Korea's production of
nuclear devices with plutonium at their core, extracted from a five-megawatt
reactor at the same complex. The North has already conducted two underground
tests of plutonium devices and is believed to be gearing up to test a uranium
device within a few months. The presence of the CNN team, led by Wolf Blitzer,
adds to the impact of Richardson's visit. It all amounts to tremendous
propaganda - for North Korea and for Richardson.
But how much could Richardson do to soothe tensions? North Korea has long
challenged the Northern Limit Line, set by the US and South Korea after the
Korean War ended in 1953, claiming waters well south of the line. Richardson,
on the basis of three previous visits to Pyongyang, hoped his trip would "make
a difference" in efforts to bring about peace. How much difference was far from
In any case, there was no way for South Korea to postpone the exercises in
response to North Korean threats, however severe. Politically, South Korea's
President Lee Myung-bak did not want to risk another round of severe criticism
for the weak response to the attack of November 23 in which marines fired about
80 shells at ill-defined North Korean targets while the North rained more than
twice as many on Yeonpyeong.
The issue seemed like one of face - and a major test for South Korea's new
defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, former chairman of South Korea's joint chiefs
of staff, who has threatened concentrated attacks, including air strikes, on
North Korean positions. Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency called him "a
puppy knowing no fear of a target" in a commentary on the South's "madcap
exercises" - fine rhetoric that suggests the contempt of North Korean
But what does North Korea really want? One interpretation is Pyongyang is
making a supreme effort to get the attention of Washington and Beijing - and
obtain direly needed aid in renewed negotiations. The mission of US Deputy
Secretary of State James Steinberg to Beijing last week showed yet again the
primacy of China's perceived role in bringing pressure on North Korea to end
To some analysts, the trains are hurtling down the tracks toward each other,
passing yellow warnings and red stop signals. "It's as though they are about to
crash," said Choi Jin-wook at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
"North Korea can't avoid it, and South Korea can't avoid it."
In both halves of the divided peninsula, leaders had to worry about their
constituencies - for Lee, conservatives thirsting for vengeance, for Kim
Jong-il, militarists dedicated to his "military first" songun policy -
and third son Kim Jong-eun's role as his father's anointed successor.