[Viewpoint] Wait for the facts, but be prepared

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[Viewpoint] Wait for the facts, but be prepared

‘Our military and people’s revenge will strike like lightning to bury our enemies in the sea.” With these words, on March 31, just five days after the sinking of the ROK warship Cheonan, the North Korean propaganda organ Rodong Sinmun criticized the Korea-U.S. joint military exercise and threatened the South.

Salvage operations revealed the wreck of the sunken corvette on Thursday, and it didn’t take an expert to think that the devastated shape suggests the vessel was shot by a torpedo. If, as seems obvious, an external attack was the cause of the sinking, who is responsible for the tragedy? While North Korea feigns innocence, who else can we point a finger at? The “water burial” threat in the Rodong Sinmun sounds even more frightening if we think that the phrase “just as we have taught them a lesson this time” was omitted.

Unusual signs have been spotted in the West Sea for more than a year. Since January 2009, North Korea has been intentionally elevating tensions around the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea. Pyongyang unilaterally proclaimed that it would adhere to the military demarcation line it had defined itself. Also, Pyongyang declared it would nullify all agreements regarding the resolution of political and military confrontations between North and South Korea.

Around this time, Pyongyang made several notable appointments and promotions within the military. 70-year-old General Kim Gyeok-sik, who was the chief of staff, was named the Fourth Army Corps Commander. The man who had supervised the army, navy and air force was reassigned as a lieutenant general.

A few years ago, North Korean Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il said at an official event that he and Kim Gyeok-sik were on informal terms. According to intelligence, Kim Jong-il told Kim Gyeok-sik that the appointment was not a demotion and he was sending Kim to the West Coast because the region was of high importance. The North Korean leader encouraged General Kim to return with success. (See Page 3 of the JoongAng Ilbo’s March 17, 2009, issue.)

The Fourth Army Corps of the People’s Army is a mechanized army unit in charge of the western region of the truce line, with a command base in Haeju, Hwanghae Province. Its role is to support North Korean navy vessels in case of a military clash with the South in the NLL area. Dozens of 95 kilometer range Silkworm anti-ship missiles, Styx missiles and 100 millimeter coastal artillery are stationed in the Haeju region. Various submarines, torpedo boats and patrol boats can be found there as well.

Many people assume that Lieutenant General Kim Yeong-cheol of the patrol division, who is in charge of the anti-South strategic operations, was involved in the attack on the Cheonan. However, if the intelligence is correct, it is likely that the North Korean military command structure in the West Sea region had been reorganized under the Fourth Army Corps commander, Kim Gyeok-sik. Kim might be commanding the anti-South Korea operation unit under the patrol division, the navy special squad and even the West Sea fleet together.

Since Kim moved to Haeju, the underground artillery and missile divisions in the coastal region have been augmented. The corps has been detected increasing its ammunition reserve, and firing exercises have become more frequent. The intensity of Pyongyang’s threats to the South has been growing increasingly harsh as well. On Nov. 10, 2009, the North Korean navy engaged the South Korean Navy in the Battle of Daecheong. Kim Gyeok-sik lost face with Kim Jong-il, who had hoped for a successful outcome when he sent him to the region.

It is assumed that Pyongyang’s provocation plan that emphasized the NLL region and the North’s defeat in the Battle of Daecheong might be closely related to the sinking of the Cheonan. If Seoul had been closely watching the moves in the West Sea - and had been highly vigilant - we might have been able to avoid the tragedy. However, these are all assumptions and speculations. All we can do is regret.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. It has been 57 years since the truce was signed. However, Pyongyang continues to provoke the South with terror attacks and infiltrations.

In recent years, there have been three marine skirmishes in the NLL area in the West Sea. In April 2009, the spokesman of the People’s Army’s General Staff Office warned, “South Korea should never forget the fact that Seoul is located only 50 kilometers away from the Military Demarcation Line.” It might be the usual menacing tactic, but the direct threat from close vicinity is an undeniable reality.

I cannot agree more with the position that we should not make any rash assumptions until the investigation into the Cheonan disaster is completed. Still, North Korea’s involvement is the likeliest answer. While the investigation continues, the government and the military should prepare to take follow-up actions based on that possibility. Only if we are prepared can the government smoothly carry out what President Lee Myung-bak called “decisive responses” once the results are in.

We all felt the surging fury as the wreck was pulled from the dark sea. I could not help wishing for retaliation. However, preventing another tragedy is more important than an emotional reaction. President Lee Myung-bak’s “decisive responses” must include actions to ensure the party responsible for sinking the Cheonan does not commit another attack.

We should not exclude retaliation too soon. Even if it turns out North Korea is not responsible for the incident, we have nothing to lose by being prepared. We can only guarantee peace by decisiveness and vigilance.

*The writer is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Heo Nam-chin

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