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South Korea: shifting rules of engagement

Analysis: When does the South send fighter planes against targets in the North?

A veteran of a South Korean commando unit chants the words "revenge and punishment" during a rally in Yeonpyeong island on Dec. 1, 2010. (Kim Jae Hwan/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and South Korea face an imminent problem and they do not seem to have the answer. At what point do rhetoric and war games escalate into serious reprisals?

When it comes to rhetoric, there’s plenty of it.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has promised, more than once, “stern retaliation” the next time the North attacks. Kim Kwan Jin, the new defense minister, said the South will “retaliate immediately and strongly until they completely surrender” and ordered war games this week off South Korea’s coasts — though not around the same island in the Yellow Sea that North Koreans hit with an artillery barrage two weeks ago.

North Korea has said tensions are worsening “by the hour,” and President Lee vowed Tuesday to turn the South’s five Yellow Sea islands within eyesight of the North Korean coastline into “military fortresses,” defended with many more troops and powerful weapons. Who would dispute the need to take these overdue measures?

The hard part, though, is knowing when to raise the stakes — when, for instance, to send South Korean fighter planes against targets in the North.

As of now, South Korean planes are only armed for air-to-air combat against North Korean planes intruding into South Korean air space — something that's only happened in three cases when pilots flew their MiGs south to defect. Kim Kwan Jin said South Korean aircraft will be ordered to attack the sources of fire the next time the North stages a shock attack, but it’s far from clear when to carry out such a threat.

What, exactly, is the way to respond if the North Koreans fire a few shells and hit no one? Or if they inflict casualties far from population centers? For that matter, what if they stage a gunfight in a remote region along the 155-mile-long demilitarized zone that’s divided the two Koreas since the Korean War?

If that’s “the forgotten war” then the intrusions afterwards, in which dozens of Americans and South Koreans were killed, are hardly remembered at all. Would renewal of those exchanges of fire in lightly populated, hilly regions trigger more than perfunctory counter-fire?

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The sense, from listening to American and South Korean military people, is that no one knows what to do. The Americans discuss options, planning and the weapons they believe would stop North Korea dead in its tracks.

It’s unlikely, however, the North would be so foolish as to go to “all-out war,” a phrase often heard from Pyongyang. The real danger now are isolated quick hits — episodes that make headlines but are over quickly and don’t interfere with the lives of the 50 million South Koreans to whom the shooting remains a distant apparition.

That’s where the politicians and military people do not have the answers. They can’t decide whether to send planes over the North, to keep on firing until the source of the attack is destroyed, to fire at supply lines and troop concentrations or, if none is apparent, to look for targets elsewhere.