Overblown threats and North Korea go together like Kim Jong-il and Japanese pornography. But if South Korea goes forward with a live-fire drilling exercise — something that could happen as early as today — Pyongyang is threatening to reignite war on the Korean peninsula. Only it doesn’t look like it’s actually mobilizing for a sustained attack.
All eyes return to Yeonpyeong island, a South Korean island just south of the maritime armistice line that the North attacked in November. A few miles from the west coast of the Korean Peninsula in the Yellow Sea, it’s where South Korea’s military insists it’ll shoot off its K-9 howitzers, 81-mm mortars and 105-mm and Vulcan Gatling artillery guns. The target is an area southwest of the island — that is, away from North Korea. A contingent of about 20 U.S. troops will be on-site, ostensibly to provide medical backup, intel and communications support.
Their real presence probably has more to do with dissuading North Korea from attacking the South in response. Its official news agency put out a statement from military leaders that it will launch an “unpredictable self-defensive blow” if the drill proceeds. North Korea shelled the island last month after a previous exercise, killing two South Korean marines and another two civilians. This time, Pyongyang vows, its response will be “deadlier… in terms of the powerfulness and sphere of the strike.”
Civilians fled Yeonpyeong on Sunday. But North Korea didn’t look like it was preparing to back up the retaliation talk. The Wall Street Journal reports that military surveillance of the North showed “no signs of unusual troop movement or war preparations,” and the bellicose rhetoric didn’t come from Kim’s offices directly. Reuters reports that North Korean artillery units are on elevated alert, but that appears to be the extent of any buildup.
That might help explain why South Korea, usually wary of provoking its buck-wild northern cousin, is isn’t backing down. The South delayed the drill after inclement weather on Saturday, but the Korea Herald quotes an anonymous senior South Korean official brushing off calls to cancel the exercise: “Some say it could be put on hold or called off due to outside influence, but that is not true.” North Korean aggression this year has been a political disaster for Seoul, as its defense minister lost his job after weak responses to November’s Yeonpyeong shelling and spring torpedoing of corvette, which killed dozens of sailors.
Either today or tomorrow, South Korea says, the drills will commence. South Korean F-15s and KF-16 fighter jets will be on emergency alert if the North tries something.
But the drills exposed a serious diplomatic split within the membership of the moribund six-party talks aimed at removing North Korea’s nukes. China and Russia want the South to cancel the drills. The U.S. and Japan back the South. An emergency United Nations meeting on Sunday called by Russia didn’t resolve the tension.
That’s a setback to U.S. efforts at yoking its military closer to the Chinese. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will visit China in January, following Adm. Mike Mullen’s call for a permanent military-to-military communications hotline. But China’s rebuffed Mullen’s calls to rein in the North, and Beijing looks like it’s standing by Pyongyang even closer after the North revealed it’s got a robust program to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel.
Now to determine who’ll be the first to back down. The South has been more inclined to back down in the past, but that was after a year’s worth of escalated North Korean belligerence. But North Korea’s about to undergo a leadership change, a likely factor behind its aggro behavior. Last week, Kim Jong-il and his heir (literal and political) Kim Jong-un, inspected North Korean military units for the first time since the Yeonpyeong attack. A cover for them to stand down or a signal to set it off after the drills? (wired)