US blending military and diplomatic strategies to stall North Korea

Top US officials appear to be pressing China to do more to rein in North Korean aggression. Meanwhile, the South held a major civil defense drill Wednesday.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A street is deserted during a civil defense drill against a simulated North Korea attack in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec. 15. South Koreans stopped work, donned gas masks and headed to underground shelters Wednesday in the country's biggest-ever civil evacuation drill staged amid tension over North Korea's artillery bombardment last month.
Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Korean students rush to a shelter during a civil defense drill against a simulated North Korea attack at Ahyeon Middle School in Seoul, South Korea, on Dec. 15.

The US has hit upon a strategy of mingling diplomatic appeals with military tough talk in attempts to restrain North Korea from staging attacks on South Korean targets.

That much appears clear from the latest pronouncement of Washington’s two top representatives in South Korea, the US ambassador and the commander of US forces, although how they’re thinking of following through on this approach remains unclear.

Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, in line with a US diplomatic offensive ongoing since the North Korean artillery barrage on an island in the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23, clearly believes China holds the cards when it comes to getting North Korea to refrain from future episodes.

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“We have been working very closely to develop countermeasures,” she said Wednesday at a gathering of American business people. “We hope China will work with us to send a clear and unmistakable message to North Korea” – and persuade the North “to end their provocative actions.”

Ms. Stephens’s remarks, at a luncheon of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, coincided with a visit to Beijing by the US deputy secretary of state, James Steinberg. His mission is assumed to be to determine how sincere or forceful the Chinese have been in dealings with North Korea – and to try to get China, as the North’s main source of direly needed food, fuel, and other critical commodities, to play a decisive role in keeping North Korea in check.

Several hours after Stephens spoke, the commander of the 28,500 US troops in Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp, described North Korea as “a significant threat to the northeast Asian region,” for which US and South Korean forces were training far more intensively than in recent years. Sharp, at a dinner forum, outlined 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” – a reference to recent war games led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington in the Yellow Sea in the wake of the attack on the island.

Lee Suk-jong, president of the East Asia Institute, which co-sponsored of the event, describes the balance that many Koreans and Americans believe is needed. “We don’t want tension escalated to full-scale war,” she says. “We have to stop aggression. At the same time, we want peace.”

US and South Korean forces, said Sharp, “will seek ways to further strengthen our exercises to deter a whole range of attacks.”

Stephens and Sharp spoke on a day in which South Korea staged a civil defense drill that officials said was the biggest in 35 years. Traffic stopped for 15 minutes throughout the country while warplanes zoomed overhead, mimicking attack by North Korean aircraft.

Passengers on subway trains were given gas masks, and officials in regions just south of the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas got lectures on how to deal with chemical and biological weapons.

The drills were conducted amid reports of North Korea’s expanding nuclear program. South Korean officials are convinced North Korea is enriching uranium for nuclear warheads at several sites in addition to the one at the main nuclear complex at Yongbyon that American physicist Siegfried Hecker was shown last month.

Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s biggest selling newspaper, quoted an official as saying definitively that ”the uranium enrichment tests that the North has been conducting for some time are at separate locations."

The newspaper speculated that North Koreans were well on the way to digging a tunnel in which to explode another nuclear device as early as March. North Korea has conducted two previous underground nuclear tests, in October 2006 and May 2009.

Sharp was careful, however, not to say that South Korea had changed the rules of engagement that basically keep South Korean forces from firing until fired on – and from staging attacks on North Korean territory. At the same time, he did not rule out the possibility of South Korean planes staging air strikes inside North Korea in response to an attack.

Korea, he said, “has the right to do everything in self-defense.”

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