North Korea’s Bellicose Tantrum Continues
According to a Chosun Ilbo report, North Korean fighter jets have the buzzed the Northern Limit Line of the DMZ 10 times since the inauguration of Lee Myung Bak on February 25th. Such provocations have occurred in the past but “never with such frequency.” As of late, North Korea has used increasingly belligerent means to express its displeasure with the South’s new conservative government. According to the report:
The South Korean Defense Ministry is closely monitoring the moves, believing the North is intentionally creating tensions in the sea, skies and on the ground. Sources in the South Korean government and military on Sunday said North Korean fighters including MIG-21s took off from North Korean air bases such as Tokchon Air Base in South Pyongan Province, crossed the “Tactical Action Line” set by South Korea, to fly near the DMZ and the NLL on about 10 occasions since the Lee Myun-bak administration’s launch. The TAL is an imaginary line set by the South 20 to 30 km north of the DMZ and the NLL, based on the assumption that North Korean fighter planes can reach skies over the Seoul Metropolitan area just three to five minutes after take-off. Once they come close to the TAL, that is the signal for South Korean fighters to take off from Suwon Air Base and elsewhere.
Bellicose rhetoric is on the rise as well. Over the weekend, KCNA, mouthpiece of the Kim Jong Il regime, threatened South Korea with pre-emptive strikes of its own: “Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced pre-emptive strike begins (AP via the Guardian).” At the same time, the KCNA has accused the South of provoking North Korean forces, threatening that conflict could break out any moment:
The south Korean warlike forces are now taking very disturbing military moves, vociferously asserting that the “northern limit line defends five islands in the West Sea” and “Yonphyong Islet is like a dagger to be thrust into one’s throat while Paekryong Islet the one to be thrust into one’s side”.Military brasshats including the chief of the General Staff of the Navy have held operational confabs on measures to defend the “northern limit line” to the end one after another in these areas. On March 18 the south Korean trigger-happy forces deployed more destroyers and guard ships in the frontline waters in the West Sea of Korea. On March 26 they infiltrated 14 warships deep into territorial waters of the DPRK side southeast of Ssanggyo-ri, Kangryong County, South Hwanghae Province on 13 occasions. The number of warships that intruded into those waters reached 5 or 6 on a daily average. In the meantime, fighter bombers and armed helicopters are kept fully ready to go into action any moment. They also issued an order to batteries of 155 mm caliber howitzers and various type guided weapons deployed on the above-said five islets to be ready to go into action. Combined firepower drills for “striking and destroying” warships of the Navy of the Korean People’s Army and drills for tactical naval maneuvers are staged on Paekryong, Taechong and Yonphyong Islets and in waters around them almost everyday. A situation in which an armed conflict may break out any moment is prevailing in the frontline waters in the West Sea due to the reckless military provocations of the south Korean military warmongers. Any attempt on the part of the south Korean military authorities to “protect” the “northern limit line” at any cost would only spark off a clash in the said waters (see: KCNA 3/28/2008 “ Spokesman for KPA Navy Command Issues Statement”).
The South, for its part, has reacted with calm. According to an AFP report, via Taipei Times, Southern military authorities will take a few days to take stock of the situation before responding:
In a first official reaction, the South’s defense ministry said it had no plans to respond immediately to the North’s message.
“The ministry will decide — within two or three days — on whether it should send a reply or not after scrutinizing North Koreans’ real intentions through consultations with the unification ministry and other agencies,” it said in a press statement.
As for the North’s possible motives, the Hankyoreh speculates that the North’s moves are intended to influence South Korea’s upcoming parlimentary elections and the April 18th summit between Lee Myung Bak and George W. Bush, as well as to telegraph the North’s intention that it too will take a less conciliatory approach to negotiations:
The North’s message is clear. The reclusive state seems to be rejecting the South Korean government’s attempts to link the nuclear problem to inter-Korean relations. It also appears to be refuting remarks made by the United States, which have indicated that as far as the nuclear matter goes, the ball has been put in the North’s court. The North also appears to be hinting that it will not ask the South for humanitarian aid.
However, Kim Seong-bae, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said, “The actions taken by North Korea today and yesterday were part of an orchestrated manoeuvre [sic]. In the short term, the actions were aimed at increasing its negotiating power. But if things don’t go smoothly, the actions may indicate North Korea will stand its ground.”
The remarks were also interpreted as being the North’s official response after North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan and Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Christopher Hill met on March 13 in Geneva to try to resolve the impasse between them. Hill is planning to visit South Korea and other Asian nations next week, focusing attention on whether he will again meet with the North Korean Vice Foreign Minister. A senior South Korean government official said, “The remark is not understood to be the North’s final position on the matter as plans for behind-the-scenes talks between the U.S. and North Korea are underway. We need to watch the situation over the next one or two weeks,” the senior South Korean official said.
In a related editorial, the Hankyoreh, which is unabashedly pro-engagement, blamed the latest spat of tension on Lee Myung Bak:
However, an expert who spoke on condition of anonymity was somewhat more pessimistic. He said, “It is difficult for the North to easily decide or change its direction in terms of declaring its nuclear programs. The situation is not so good that we can think optimistically about the matter.” He added that the problem is that “President Lee’s administration hasn’t shown the will to engage in the process.”
UPDATE: In a second editorial on the rapid deterioration of North-South relations, the Hankyoreh reiterated its attacks on Lee Myung Bak, blaming him for the current situation:
Against such a non-responsive stance, some experts have raised questions about the crisis management abilities of the South Korean administration of President Lee Myung-bak. The inter-Korean relationship has grown worse following a recent series of hostile remarks made toward North Korea by senior South Korean government officials. In spite of this, however, a “policy of ignorance” being carried out by the new administration is making matters worse, experts have said.