Tension expected to ratchet up through April

Many political analysts expected Tuesday that the exacerbation of tension on the Korean Peninsula will continue at least until the joint South Korea-U.S. military exercise Foal Eagle ends this month.

“The current game of chicken between the two Koreas will likely continue until the end of Foal Eagle,” private Sejong Institute researcher Paik Hak-soon said.

“In this climate, our government must come up with proper measures against such extreme steps of the North as the temporary closure of the industrial zone in Gaeseong.”

On Tuesday, the North pulled all of its 53,000 workers from the inter-Korean industrial park in the town, just north of the highly-fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), for the first time since the complex commenced operation in late 2004.

Yoo Ho-yeol, director and professor of the North Korean Studies department at Korea University, agreed. “The conflicts between the two countries will continue unless the nuclear issue is resolved. But the chances are that the unprecedentedly high tensions may subdue after Foal Eagle comes to an end,” he said.

Foal Eagle is a combined field training exercise that involves a large number of forces of the two allies. It followed a smaller joint drill, Key Resolve, which ran March 11 - 21, and will wrap up on April 30.

The two joint drills are seen as major bones of contention because Seoul and Washington claim they are defensive in nature while Pyongyang claims they are preludes to Northward invasions.

It is not difficult to find pessimists who project the current tense situation will continue. “South Korean experts have been complacent as they predicted the North will follow its past pattern of switching gears and toning down its rhetoric as soon as the South Korea-U.S. joint exercises finish,” said Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Seoul National University-affiliated Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.

“They should understand that’s not the case any longer with North Korea under new head, Kim Jong-un. We need a different approach. We may have to think of sending a representative to Pyongyang. ”

To grapple with the spiraling tension, the opposition parties and some ruling party members contended Seoul should proactively make efforts such as dispatching special envoys.

However, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae told lawmakers Monday it’s too early to pull out the negotiations card. “If negotiations can bear results, we may swallow our pride for talks. But we are not in such a phase … I don’t think dispatching a special envoy will guarantee the easing of tensions,” he said.