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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Obama Vows U.S. Will Protect South Korea From N. Korea's Attacks

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Obama: U.S. Will Defend South Korea From North Korea's Aggression

South Korea — International diplomats scrambled Tuesday to defuse tensions in the Koreas after North Korea bombarded a South Korean island with artillery shells, killing at least two people. President Barack Obama pledged the United States would defend Seoul from aggression by its communist neighbor.

Yet with its options limited, the U.S. sought a diplomatic rather a military response to one of those most ominous clashes between the Koreas in decades.

"South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean War," Obama said. "And we strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance."

The president, speaking to ABC News, would not speculate when asked about military options. He was expected to telephone South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Tuesday night, and he met into the evening with his top national security advisers to discuss next steps.

Obama called North Korea an "ongoing threat that has to be dealt with" and reiterated that South Korea is "one of our most important allies" and "a cornerstone of U.S. security in the Pacific region."

A White House official told ABC that the U.S. is discussing several measures with its allies, including action at the United Nations Security Council and further sanctions, and more joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, to demonstrate solidarity and support.

Earlier, South Korea warned the North of "enormous retaliation" if it took more aggressive steps after Pyongyang fired scores of artillery shells at the island of Yeonpyeong. It was one of the most serious attacks by the North on its neighbor since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The South fired back after Tuesday's attack and sent fighter jets to the area, close to a disputed maritime border on the west of the divided Korean peninsula and the scene of deadly clashes between the two rivals in the past.

South Korea was conducting military drills in the area at the time but said it had not been firing at the North. Pyongyang blamed Seoul for starting the fight, which killed at least two South Korean marines and wounded at least 15 other troops along with three civilians and razed scores of houses on the island of Yeonpyeong.

The extent of casualties on the northern side was unknown but officials in Seoul said they could be considerable.

Calling the incident "an invasion of South Korean territory," Lee warned that future provocations could be met with a strong response, although there was no indication of immediate retaliation.

"I think enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again," Lee told reporters during a visit to military headquarters in Seoul.

The incident followed revelations over the weekend that Pyongyang is fast developing another source of material to make atomic bombs, and analysts said the North may again be pursuing a strategy of calculated provocations to wrest diplomatic and economic concessions from the international community.

North Korea said its neighbor started the fight.

"Despite our repeated warnings, South Korea fired dozens of shells from 1 p.m. ... and we've taken strong military action immediately," its KCNA news agency said.

North Korea said it was merely "reacting to the military provocation of the puppet group with a prompt powerful physical strike," and accused Seoul of starting the skirmish with its "reckless military provocation as firing dozens of shells inside the territorial waters of the" North.

The supreme military command in Pyongyang threatened more strikes if the South crossed their maritime border by "even 0.001 millimeter," according to KCNA.

South Korean officials said the skirmish began when Pyongyang warned the South to halt military drills in the area.

When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters, albeit away from the North Korean shore, the North retaliated by bombarding the small island of Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population.

When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters — but away from the North Korean shore — the North retaliated by shelling the small island of Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population.

Seoul responded by unleashing its own barrage from K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers and scrambling fighter jets.

South Korea responded by firing K-9 155 mm self-propelled howitzers, but a South Korean official declined to say whether North Korean territory was hit.

The entire clash lasted more than an hour, NBC News reported.

Sources told NBC that the North fired the first salvo of artillery shells at the island four hours after the South's "live-fire" artillery training exercise.

South Korea returned fire almost immediately. For more than an hour, the two sides exchanged salvos — the North Koreans fired about 70 artillery shells, the South fired about 80.

South Korea's military indicated it inflicted heavy casualties on the North, but the claim could not be independently verified.

Senior U.S. military commanders in South Korea have been temporarily put on a 24-hour operational alert, essentially meaning they man their commands around-the-clock. The rest of U.S. military forces have not been placed on alert, and the overall threat level against U.S. forces has not been raised, according to NBC News.

In addition, senior military officials told NBC News that no U.S. service members, equipment, weapons, ships or planes have been ordered to reposition themselves inside South Korea, and no additional forces are headed to the region.

'Brink of war

The exchange represents a sharp escalation of the skirmishes that flare up along the disputed border from time to time.

It also comes amid high tensions over the North's apparent progress in its quest for nuclear weapons — Pyongyang claims it has a new uranium enrichment facility — and six weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as the heir apparent.

"It brings us one step closer to the brink of war," said Peter Beck, a research fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, "because I don't think the North would seek war by intention, but war by accident, something spiraling out of control has always been my fear."

The two Koreas are still technically at war — the Korean War ended only with a truce and North Korea does not recognize the maritime border that was unilaterally drawn by the United Nations at the end of the 1950-1953 conflict.

Tension also rose sharply early this year after Seoul accused the North of torpedoing one of its navy vessels, killing 46 sailors.

'Frightened to death'

"I thought I would die," said Lee Chun-ok, 54, an islander who said she was watching TV in her home when the shelling began. Suddenly, a wall and door collapsed.

"I was really, really terrified," she told The Associated Press after being evacuated to the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul, "and I'm still terrified."

YTN television said dozens of houses caught fire on Yeonpyeong, which is about 75 miles west of the capital Seoul near the disputed maritime border. It is a mere seven miles from — and within sight of — the North Korean mainland.

diplomats scrambled Tuesday to defuse tensions after North Korea bombarded a South Korean island with artillery shells, killing at least two people. President Barack Obama pledged the United States would defend Seoul from aggression by its neighbor.

The station broadcast pictures of thick columns of black smoke rising from the island. Screams and chaotic shouts could be heard on the video. YTN said between 1,200 and 1,300 people live there.

U.S., U.N. condemn attack

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned North Korea's artillery attack and conveyed his concerns to the Security Council's president.

Ban, who is South Korean, called for "immediate restraint" and insisted that "any differences should be resolved by peaceful means and dialogue."

Pak Tok-hun, North Korea's deputy U.N. ambassador, said the shelling incident was a matter to be discussed between the two countries, not by the U.N. Security Council.

"The Security Council is dealing with threats to international peace and security," he said as Security Council diplomats consulted on how they might respond to the incident. "This is a regional issue between the North and South."

The U.N. and U.S. military commander in South Korea called for general officer-level talks with the North Korean military in order to exchange information and de-escalate the situation.

"We call upon North Korea to stop these unprovoked attacks and fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement," said Gen. Walter L. Sharp. "These actions are threatening the peace and stability of the entire region."

"We call upon North Korea to stop these unprovoked attacks and fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement," said Gen. Walter L. Sharp, UNC commander. "These actions are threatening the peace and stability of the entire region."

While condemning the attack, the U.S. played down the chances of any immediate U.S. military action.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates conferred with his South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young by phone and the two agreed to coordinate any response to "this act of aggression" by North Korea, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

"He (Gates) expressed sympathy for the loss of life and appreciation for the restraint shown to date by the South Korean government," Morrell said.

'Colossal danger'

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of the "colossal danger" of an escalation in fighting on the Korean peninsula.

"It is necessary to immediately end all strikes," Lavrov told reporters during a visit to the Belarussian capital Minsk. "Tensions in the region are growing."

The senior U.S. envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said that China and the United States agreed that North Korea's shelling of the South Korean island was "very undesirable" and restraint was needed.

Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a news conference that both sides of the divided Korean peninsula should "do more to contribute to peace" and said it was "imperative now to resume the six-party talks" aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
Newsweek: Powerful generals fuel Asian arms race

Those negotiations — involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States — have long been on ice.

However, the reclusive North has recently been pushing to resume the six-party talks, which previously it has used to win massive aid in return for promises to end its weapons program.

China is North Korea's only major ally, and its economic and diplomatic support have been important to shoring up its otherwise isolated neighbor. Kim Jong Il visited China twice this year to strengthen ties.

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How To Respond To North Korea: Very Limited Options

Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served 20 years in the C.I.A. and Defense Intelligence Agency, including as the C.I.A.’s deputy division chief for Korean analysis.

Pyongyang has again dangerously raised tensions, this time by attacking a small South Korea island in the first artillery strike since the Korean War. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is tense but unlikely to lead to war. Seoul will be constrained by all the same factors that hindered a strong South Korean response to North Korea’s attack in March on the Cheonan naval ship.

South Korea fears that even a limited retaliatory attack could degenerate into an all-out conflagration. President Lee Myung-bak called for a “stern response” but also took care not to escalate the situation further. As with the Cheonan attack, it shows the limited leverage and options that Seoul and Washington have toward North Korea.

The artillery attack furthers the North’s tactical objectives of asserting sovereignty over the Western Sea Area. But, more importantly, it furthers its strategic goals and is part of a continuing pattern of provocations to force the United States and South Korea to abandon pressure tactics, including sanctions. Similarly, North Korea’s disclosure of a covert nuclear facility is another action to force the U.S. and its allies back to the negotiating table by raising fears of an expanding nuclear arsenal.

It is worrisome, if not frightening, how far Pyongyang is now willing to go to achieve its foreign policy objectives. North Korea appears to have abandoned previously self-imposed constraints on its behavior. Although the new brazenness could be linked to the North Korean leadership succession, it may also reflect growing desperation brought on by deteriorating economic and political conditions.

Pyongyang’s actions are designed to weaken U.S. and South Korean resolve but will likely have the opposite effect. Washington responded to this weekend’s disclosure of a covert uranium enrichment facility by rejecting calls for a hasty return to the six-party talks nuclear negotiations. The U.S. and South Korean governments have properly resisted entreaties to acquiesce to North Korean demands. This, in turn, may very well cause North Korea to do something even more provocative.

China resisted efforts for a U.N. response to North Korea’s blatant act of war in the Cheonan attack, even refusing to accept the evidence of the international investigation team. It is unacceptable for Beijing to continue to take a neutral position or pressure Washington to a premature return to the six-party talks.

Although Seoul will likely exercise restraint in this situation, Pyongyang is venturing into new territory in its actions. North Korea’s willingness to engage in ever more provocative acts has created a growing risk of miscalculation by either side. The Cheonan attack, the revelation of a uranium enrichment facility, and today’s artillery attack shows the previously static situation is unraveling.

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Sources: Heritage Foundation, MSNBC, NY Times, Google Maps

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