South Korea and North Korea escalated their war of words Friday in an atmosphere of mounting tension that raised the distinct possibility of more battles in the Yellow, or West Sea but no reprisals for North Korea’s torpedoing the Navy ship Cheonan in March.
South Korean leaders appeared ambivalent about how tough to talk or act, or what to do militarily amid vague threats that left analysts wondering if they had settled on a clear plan of action.
No sooner had President Lee Myung-bak told his top aides “we must be highly prudent” than his defense minister was vowing to “make sure that North Korea pays for its dastardly deeds.”
Kim Tae-yong, talking to foreign reporters at the Defense Ministry, stopped short of a military threat but came up with a fighting analogy that left scope for an armed response.
“A boxer in a ring would only hit with gloves,” he said, suggesting North Korea had broken the rules for the match.
“There must be limits to its hostility and methods,” said Mr. Kim. “For such acts, this government will definitely make North Korea pay.”
Counting on supportive words from visiting Clinton
But just how was the question as the government warmed up for diplomatic overtures, including pressure to get the United Nations Security Council both to condemn North Korea for torpedoing the Cheonan, killing 46 of its 104 crew members, and to strengthen sanctions.
In Tokyo, she spoke Friday of the importance of “sending a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences.” Mrs.Clinton, however, appeared deliberately vague as she declared “this will not be and cannot be business as usual” and called for “not just a regional but an international response.”
Lee, for his part, warned against “a single mistake in all of our responsive measures,” while North Korea repeated its denials of anything to do with the incident and vowed “merciless punishment” in response to retaliation.
Pro forma rhetoric from North Korea
South Korean officials brushed off the North Korean rhetoric as pretty much pro forma for a regime that has on several occasions threatened to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire,” but worried over a repetition of hostilities in disputed waters off the Korean west coast. North Korea signaled that possibility Friday, vowing “the complete abrogation of the North-South agreement on non-aggression,” a reference to a pact reached in 1991 in which the North promised to respect the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea.
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.
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.