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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kim Tae-Young Resigns; N. Korea's Attack Sign Of Chaos Or Premeditated?

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With Limited Options, South Korea Shifts Military Rules

Responding to growing public criticism after a deadly North Korean attack, President Lee Myung-bak accepted the resignation on Thursday of his defense minister and announced changes in the military’s rules of engagement to make it easier for South Korea to strike back with greater force, especially if civilians are threatened.

The government also announced plans to increase the number of troops and heavy weapons on Yeonpyeong Island, where two marines and two civilians died Tuesday in an artillery fusillade from the North.

But Mr. Lee, who came to office two years ago vowing to get tough with the North, has little maneuvering room in formulating a response. While the attack appears to have pushed anti-North Korean sentiment here to its highest level in years, there is little public support for taking military action against the North that might lead to an escalation of hostilities.

“North Korea has nothing to lose, while we have everything to lose,” said Kang Won-taek, a professor of politics at Seoul National University. “Lee Myung-bak has no choice but to soften his tone to keep this country peaceful. It is not an appealing choice, but it is the only realistic choice.”

The South’s powerful neighbor is also counseling restraint. The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, said Thursday that Beijing opposed any provocative military behavior by either side on the Korean Peninsula, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported.

On Thursday, while North Korea warned through its official news agency of further military retaliation if provoked by South Korea, Mr. Lee said only, “We should not drop our guard in preparation for the possibility of another provocation by North Korea,” according to his chief spokesman, Hong Sang-pyo. “A provocation like this can recur any time.”

The changes in the rules of engagement were similarly restrained. South Korean defenses on five coastal islands in the Yellow Sea had been set up primarily to guard against possible amphibious landings by North Korean troops. Critics said Thursday that the military had not anticipated the possibility of an attack by North Korean artillery batteries, which are reportedly in caves along the North’s coastline.

“Now, an artillery battle has become the new threat, so we’re reassessing the need to strengthen defenses,” Mr. Lee told lawmakers. The new measures he outlined include doubling the number of howitzers and upgrading other weaponry.

The new rules of engagement will be based on whether military or civilian sites are the targets, said Mr. Hong, the presidential spokesman, adding that the move was made to “change the paradigm of responding to North Korea’s provocations.”

Previously, South Korean forces were allowed to respond only in kind — if the North fired artillery, the South could answer only with artillery — to contain any dispute. Now, officials said, the military would be allowed to respond with greater force.

The aftermath of this week’s artillery attack was not the first time Mr. Lee had come under criticism for sitting on his hands in the face of a deadly provocation by the North. Two years ago, when a South Korean tourist was shot by a sentry at a North Korean mountain resort, his government’s response amounted to a slap on the wrist: suspending tours to the resort and banning South Korean civic groups from visiting the North.

But the clearest case was Mr. Lee’s response in March to the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan.

Mr. Lee at first seemed to stall by waiting for the results of an international investigation, which took two months to conclude that the ship had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo. When he responded, it was with relatively mild measures like reducing the South’s already minuscule trade with the North, resuming the South’s cold-war-era propaganda speakers along the demilitarized zone and demanding an apology. But the speakers have yet to be turned on after North Korea threatened to shoot at them, and Mr. Lee dropped the apology demand as a precondition for talks.

Mr. Lee was widely blamed in South Korea for having provoked the Cheonan episode by ending unconditional aid to the North at the start of his presidency.

“Before, the public saw him as too hard, and now they see him as too soft,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University in Seoul.

Despite public pressure to do more, Mr. Lee does not have many options for using less lethal forms of pressure on the North, diplomatic or economic. North Korea has already weathered years of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. In fact, the tough economic conditions appear only to give the North motivation to continue its brinkmanship, to extract aid as it faces a winter of food and fuel shortages. Some analysts say the North is also using the provocations to burnish the military credentials of Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, and his heir apparent.

Analysts say making sanctions effective would require greater support from China, North Korea’s traditional protector, which has so far been reluctant to tighten the screws on the North’s already decrepit economy. In recent days, Mr. Lee and President Obama have agreed to make new appeals to Chinese leaders to put more pressure on the North Korean dictator, but analysts say they are not optimistic that the Chinese will comply.

Still, South Korean officials said they would urge China to act more responsibly by pressing the North to refrain from any more attacks. They also said they would ask Beijing to more closely monitor trade with North Korea by Chinese merchants, which they said has been a way for the North to bypass international economic sanctions.

Mr. Lee and his advisers appear to have concluded that a less confrontational stance is the only way to persuade North Korea to end its provocations. A few analysts speculated that Mr. Lee might eventually end up not far from his liberal predecessors like former President Roh Moo-hyun, who used economic aid to appease the North and reduce tensions on the peninsula.

“Anyone would conclude that the peaceful approach is best to reverse the situation,” said Moon Jung-in, a politics professor at Yonsei University in Seoul and a former adviser in the Roh administration. “A hard-line approach is not a real option.”

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North Korea Strike May Have Been Premeditated

Since the two Koreas exchanged hundreds of artillery rounds Tuesday in an incident that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians, Seoul and Pyongyang have been blaming each other for instigating the attack.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young (who resigned Thursday after being criticized for what was called his poor response to the strike) says he suspects that two senior-level North Korean officers allegedly involved in the March sinking of the South’s warship, Cheonan, were behind this week’s attack. The North, on the other hand, claims that the South fired first.

Regardless of where the first shot came from, Pyongyang seems to have been setting the stage for this kind of attack as early as last year. For the past two years, the North Koreans have increasingly claimed that they were threatened by American and South Korean war games. So when the South conducted counter-proliferation drills with the United States last year, the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) declared that it will no longer be bound by the Korean Armistice Agreement and added that it “will not guarantee the legal status” of islands in disputed waters, including Yeonpyeong, the island that was shelled Tuesday.

Translation: North Korea believes it is at liberty to attack should it feel provoked.

What’s more, a relatively unnoticed North Korean military drill in August suggests that Tuesday’s shelling may have been premeditated. On Aug. 9, the North fired about 100 artillery pieces toward South Korean waters. Later that day, North Korean drones were spotted hovering near Yeonpyeong.

South Korean defense officials say they believe the North Koreans are using the drones to spy on the South’s troops and weapons stationed on islands such as Yeonpyeong. That, along with the sequence of the exercise, suggests that the communist North has been gearing up for an attack on the island for some time.

The North Koreans are justifying this week’s shelling as a “decisive self-defensive measure” in response to South Korean military exercises. It’s a logic they’ve been using since the early 1990s; Pyongyang has used U.S. and South Korean war games as a pretext to step up its belligerency, citing the “hostile policies of the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean puppet regime.”

This time, however, things could get worse. In the past, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il used the relatively moderate foreign ministry to keep the military in check so things don’t spiral out of control. But recently, the military appears to be increasingly asserting itself on policy matters.

In the past two years, military organs such as the Supreme Command of the KPA and the National Defense Commission have been issuing policy statements directed toward the outside world -- something that was mostly done by the foreign ministry in the past.

More frightening is that there are reasons to believe that the military has become so emboldened and powerful that Kim Jong-il may no longer be the absolute leader who calls the shots in Pyongyang. For one, the Dear Leader’s physical and mental capacity has been declining—he reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008 and has grown frail since then.

His third son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, lacks military credentials (although he recently and arbitrarily was elevated to the rank of general), and has to prove to the military that he has what it takes to be the next dictator-in-chief. That may explain why the Kims recently toured the base from which the shelling took place, to rubber-stamp the attack.

What’s ironic is that part of the military’s growing hubris could be of Kim Jong-il’s own making. In the late 1990s, he initiated his Songun—or military-first—policy, in which the KPA was elevated to the highest position in the government. Under that policy, Kim Jong-il sprinkled his generals with Mercedes, missiles and nukes.

Now, experts say the military has become so powerful that the Dear Leader no longer can rein in his generals. “The military-first policy has essentially reached its logical conclusion—that Kim Jong-il is no longer in a position to make the final policy decisions,” says Kenneth Quinones, a former U.S. negotiator and Korea expert.

Meanwhile, the South Koreans will soon begin naval exercises in the Yellow Sea with the U.S. The exercises will involve the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which the Obama administration dispatched as a way to signal its displeasure about the shelling.

In the eyes of North Korea’s generals, that may well constitute another excuse to get trigger-happy, again.

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Sources: CNN, MSNBC, Newsweek, NY Times, Google Maps

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