North’s action called measured message

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North’s action called measured message

North Korea’s recent behavior has been as hostile as it has been baffling. But the North may also have been shrewd to avoid a full-fledged clash while effectively sending a message.

Those are common views by many experts both inside and outside the government.

Even with inter-Korean talks scheduled for next month, the artillery firing, which began Wednesday, may continue. On the surface, firing toward your dialogue partner merely days before the meeting doesn’t appear to be too smart an approach.

However, South Korean officials appeared to remain largely unfazed by the whole affair. The Unification Ministry yesterday even sent Pyongyang the list of the 17 South Korean officials for the Feb. 1 Kaesong talks.

And the ministry denied that the South would halt all inter-Korean dialogue if the North fired across the Northern Limit Line and into South Korean waters, explaining that it hasn’t established any specific plans based on hypothetical events.

Government officials in Seoul were scrambling to determine the intentions and motives behind the North’s moves. But Paik Hak-soon, a senior fellow at the think tank Sejong Institute, disputed the idea that North Korea’s motives were complicated.

“I actually think the messages from North Korea are simple and clear,” he said. “First, they want to cooperate [with us] on pending issues in the inter-Korean relations. Second, they’re saying, ‘We cannot tolerate any provocation against our system and regime.’ The North is none too pleased about what it perceives as criticism of and threats to its leader [Kim Jong-il], the regime and to its national security.”

The South has mostly been lukewarm to some of the North’s proposals for certain talks, taking its time before setting a schedule. Paik said the intention behind the North’s action is to prod the South along.

Paik also referred to the South Korean government’s reported preparation of an administrative contingency scheme in case of unrest in North Korea, and to the South’s plan to stage a pre-emptive strike on the North upon detecting indications of a nuclear offensive. The North has said such a strategy is “an open declaration of war.”

Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said the North Korean military might have been trying to bounce back after a humiliating defeat to the South Korean Navy during a brief naval clash last November. He also said the North was upset with those recent remarks by the South Korean government, adding that he thinks the maritime border issue was secondary. “The South should approach this with caution. It would not be appropriate to stage counterattacks,” Koh said.

He also said while the North has bristled at any perceived threat to its security, it has been more cooperative when it comes to other matters.

The North’s action this week has also been measured to avoid a direct clash with the South while still sending its message. By press time last night, it had not fired into South Korean waters. The South military called it “a low-level provocation that has been meticulously planned.”

Under the rules of engagement here, the South doesn’t counterattack unless the North fires into the South’s territory.

Jeong Young-tae, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said the North may have been attempting to prove it can always return to being belligerent if it gets frustrated. “The firing is for the North Koreans a way to show that making proposals for talks is not a sign of their weakness,” Jeong said.

Another defense source said the North military was flexing its muscles by demonstrating the strength and precision of its artillery. The ranges for the North’s artillery, its calibers ranging from 76 to 130 millimeters, can travel between 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) and 34 kilometers. South Korean islands on the west such as Baengnyeong would be easily within reach.


By Yoo Jee-ho, Lee Min-yong [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

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