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How will North Korea respond to South Korea's threats?

A third nuclear test and naval confrontations in the Yellow Sea are likely, say analysts, in response to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's announcement Monday of retaliatory measures against North Korea for torpedoing the navy ship Cheonan.

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“If our territorial waters, airspace, or territory are violated,” said Lee, “we will immediately exercise our right of self-defense.”

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Points of attack

Some analysts say any military confrontation could escalate beyond the level of naval engagements. “If we have another attack, they will try to destroy the attacking submarine,” says Kim Tae-woo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “Then North Korea may threaten the safety of our commercial air flights” – and he fears may stage a surprise attack on land.

North Korea signaled just that possibility with a threat to fire on the DMZ mega-loudspeakers used by South Korea to shout propaganda into the North before ceasing all such broadcasts during the decade of the Sunshine policy of reconciliation. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency quoted an anonymous commander as declaring that North Korean forces would “start the firing of direct sighting shots to destroy” the facilities for broadcasting propaganda.

The commander promised escalating attacks “to eliminate the root cause of the provocations,” according to the North Korean report, “if the group of traitors challenges the just reaction” of the North.

Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party newspaper, repeating North Korea’s denial of anything to do with the sinking of the Cheonan, denounced South Korea’s claim as “an intolerable, grave provocation.”

South and North Korea delineated their positions in the midst of a flurry of diplomacy in which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in China, sought to persuade the Chinese to act forcefully to cool down tensions. China has been reluctant to accept South Korea’s version of the attack while offering tacit support of North Korea, which it keeps on life support with food, funding, and military assistance.

What will China and Hillary Clinton do?

China is not expected to go along with strong UN Security Council sanctions, but Ms. Clinton said she was working “to avoid an escalation of belligerence and provocation.” She is expected to offer unstinting support for South Korea’s position when she meets President Lee and other top South Korean officials here Wednesday.