South taking ‘low key’ stance on North threat

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South taking ‘low key’ stance on North threat

Barely two weeks into the new year, North Korea has so far shown it hasn’t changed since last year.

Over the first 15 days of 2010, North Korea has managed to do the following: show willingness to engage South Korea; call for a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953; propose talks on resuming suspended tour programs; set up a follow-up meeting tomorrow after joint trips to overseas industrial sites last month; and most recently, on Friday, threaten a retaliatory war on South Korea.

This list offers an apt summary of North Korea’s approach to the South. It’s defined by an unpredictable and, to some, almost mind-boggling shifting of tones. It’s not a science, but it isn’t much of an art, either.

Seoul and Washington officials like to mention their two-track approach of maintaining pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions while holding a door open for dialogue. But the North has its own two-track strategy of presenting both conciliatory and belligerent rhetoric.

The warning from the National Defense Commission Friday was particularly harsh. The commission took offense to South Korean media reports that the government here had drafted a contingency plan for an emergency in the North and ensuing unrest. The commission threatened to stage a “holy war” and to destroy the Blue House unless the South apologized.

It also warned that the South would be kept out of all dialogue for peace on the peninsula, and demanded that the Unification Ministry and the National Intelligence Service, the two South Korean agencies that handle North Korean affairs, be dismantled.

It was the first statement issued by the commission since it was elevated to the highest office of state in 1998. It has direct control over the military and Kim Jong-il is its chairman.

According to the media reports in question, the South has prepared a contingency plan in case an emergency in the North, such as a sudden leadership change, causes unrest. The government has neither confirmed nor denied the plan’s existence. On Friday night, Unification Ministry Spokesman Chun Hae-sung said it was “deeply regrettable” that the North had issued such threats based on “unconfirmed and speculative reporting.”

For the most part, however, South Korea appeared to be taking, in the words of one official, “a low-key” approach to the hoopla.

In fact, before the threat was issued, Seoul was still trying to decide whether to take the North up on an offer to hold discussions over resuming tourism at Mount Kumgang.

“We will not rush to conclusions on what the North’s intentions are at this point,” a government source told the JoongAng Daily Friday. “North Korea is showing different cards. For now, we will hold the inter-Korean talks [tomorrow as a follow-up to industrial site visits] as scheduled.”

In the annual New Year’s Day joint editorial in three state newspapers, the North argued it was its “consistent stance ... to establish lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and make it nuclear-free through dialogue and negotiations.” Scheduling the meeting after the joint tour around overseas industrial complexes and proposing talks to deal with Mount Kumgang tourism may have been intended as occasions to help improve ties.

The military is now flexing its muscles instead.

“The North’s military may have been down on itself after losing to the South in the Daecheong battle last year, and may now be trying to rally the soldiers,” said Jeong Young-tae, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. He was referring to the naval clash on the west coast in November, when the South Navy overwhelmed a North Korean ship that had crossed the sea border.

“It appeared to have pushed for dialogue earlier, and the North may now want to prove it can always return to being its old self,” he said. “The message is that offering to engage in dialogue was clearly not a sign of weakness.”

Pessimists say it’s unlikely the two Koreas will have high-level meetings again in the near future - at least not until the six-party talks resume.

Since the National Defense Commission is so powerful, other agencies would be reluctant to suddenly turn on their charm offensive in defiance of the military.

By Yoo Jee-ho []

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