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Clinton condemns North Korea as South Korea weighs response

North Korea and South Korea have been careful to avoid explicit calls for war, but both nations have implied that military action is possible if their diplomatic standoff continues.

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North Korea for more than a decade has been challenging the NLL, delineated by the United Nations Command three years after the Korean War ended in 1953, in bloody battles in June 1999, June 2002, and again last November, when a South Korean corvette sent a North Korean boat back to port in flames. Intelligence analysts believe North Korean commanders planned the attack on the Cheonan by a North Korean submarine armed with a single torpedo in retaliation for the November incident.

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With tensions high, the fear is that North Korean patrol boats will again challenge the line and that South Korean corvettes and patrol boats will fire back. They are under orders to fire warning shots if they see an enemy boat but can fire to hit the target if the North Koreans fire first.

Whatever they do, though, South Korean forces are not about to strike the ports on the Yellow Sea where North Korea keeps many of its 70 submarines.

“We are considering all kinds of options except the military,” says Choi Jin-wook, senior North Korea analyst at the Korean Institute of National Unification. “International cooperation is very important. Economic sanctions can be very painful.”

Who will side with South Korea?

South Korean leaders face problems, however, in convincing their own people as well as foreign leaders of their cause. President Lee at the meeting of his national security council stressed “international aspects” of the incident as well as “its impact on our society and economy.”

The response of South Koreans should become evident in local elections on June 2, in which hundreds of candidates are running for the posts of mayor and governor and city and provincial assemblies. “The opposition is not going to accept the government position,” says Mr. Choi. “They will use this to criticize the government, to say it’s not qualified to fight.”

Although local positions do not have immediate influence on policy vis-à-vis North Korea, the national issue inevitably influences sentiment. “The opposition tries to exploit this,” says Choi. “Every election is a national election in Korea.”

The ruling, deeply conservative Grand National Party is strong in the densely populated region of metropolitan Seoul and the nearby port city of Incheon, but faces deep-seated hostility in the southwestern Cholla provinces and Kwangju, scene of a bloody antigovernment revolt 30 years ago this month in which more than 200 people were killed.