North and South Korea: Threats reach new heights

North Korean troops on exercises near the border this week. Picture: Reuters
North Korean troops on exercises near the border this week. Picture: Reuters
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SOUTH Korea has warned that it will meet any attack from its northern neighbour with an even stronger response, raising the fear that a clash between the two could lead to all-out war.

North Korea’s war-mongering rhetoric has reached new heights in the past week.

And it peaked on Monday, when the isolated regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, unilaterally tore up the truce with America which ended the Korean War in 1953.

South Korea’s defence ministry yesterday said it would respond harshly to any attack from the North. Spokesman Kim Min-seok warned that if the North did attack it would suffer “much more powerful damage” than whatever it inflicted on South Korea.

Tellingly, among the recent bluster from Mr Kim’s capital, Pyongyang, about nuclear strikes on Washington in response to United Nations’ sanctions, was a single sentence in a North Korean army Supreme Command statement on 5 March. It said North Korea “will make a strike of justice at any target anytime as it pleases without limit”.

Those words have a chilling link to the recent past, when the North, angry over perceived slights, took its time before exacting revenge on rival South Korea. Vows of retaliation after naval clashes with South Korea in 1999 and 2009, for example, were followed by more bloodshed, including attacks blamed on North Korea that killed South Koreans in 2010.

In March 2010, the Cheonan, a 1,200-ton South Korean warship, exploded and sank in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 sailors. A South Korean-led investigation found that North Korea torpedoed the ship, a claim the North denies.

The Cheonan sinking may have been retaliation for the naval defeat four months earlier, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

In November 2010, the North sent a warning to the South to cancel a routine live-fire artillery drill planned on Yeonpyeong Island, only seven miles from North Korea in Yellow Sea waters it claims as its own.

The South went ahead with the drills, firing, away from Northern territory, officials in capital Seoul said. But the North then sent artillery shells raining down on the island, killing two civilians and two marines.

The South responded with artillery fire of its own, but the government of then-president Lee Myung-bak was severely criticised for what was seen as a weak response. Mr Lee, a conservative who infuriated the North by ending the previous government’s “sunshine policy” of huge aid shipments with few strings attached, vowed massive retaliation if hit again by the North. The government of newly inaugurated president Park Geun-hye, also a conservative, has made similar comments, though she has also said she will try to build trust with the North and explore renewed dialogue and aid shipments.

Kim Jong-un on Monday visited artillery troops near disputed waters with South Korea and urged them to be on “maximum alert” as war could break out any­time, according to state media.

If war did break out, the US would assume control of South Korea’s military because of an alliance that began with the UN response to North Korean invasion in 1950. But the South has said it reserves the right to react strongly if attacked. A clue to when the North might act lies in the timing of the current threats. North Korea is furious over annual US-South Korean military drills that will continue until the end of April.

It is unlikely to stage an attack when so much US firepower is assembled, but it might hit South Korea after the drills end.

“They are quiet when tension is high and state-of-the-art weapons are brought to South Korea for the drills,” said Chon Hyun-joon, an analyst at the state-backed Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

Nuclear test

Only a month ago, North Korea proclaimed it had again tested a nuclear missile.

However, yesterday the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation said it was highly unlikely it would find any “smoking gun” radioactive traces from the blast, leaving key questions about the device unresolved.

The treaty organisation detected North Korea’s third nuclear test through seismic monitors. But its global network of monitoring stations failed to find any airborne evidence, making it impossible to say what materials were involved, or where they originated.

“It is very unlikely that we will register anything at this point … at this late stage,” treaty organisation spokeswoman Annika Thunborg said.

The failure to detect radioactive traces could indicate that North Korea managed to prevent any such release from the 12 February underground explosion.

The test-ban treaty was negotiated in the 1990s but has not taken effect nuclear powers such as the US and China have not ratified it.

But the treaty organisation already monitors possible breaches, deploying more than 270 stations worldwide. It can take weeks to pick up radioactive gases emitted by such tests.

One critical question is what kind of fissile material North Korea used in the latest test. In 2006 and 2009, it is believed to have used plutonium.

North Korea abandoned plutonium production in 2007, following international pressure, but later acknowledged that it had built facilities to produce enriched uranium, which can also be used in bombs if refined to a high degree.