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South Korea: shifting rules of engagement

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

One reason for the uncertainty of the South Koreans is they never can be sure what the Americans are thinking. True, U.S. President Barack Obama has seemed firm in his pronouncements. Yes, he ordered the aircraft carrier George Washington, a 97,000-ton nuclear-powered behemoth, to lead a U.S. strike force into war games with South Korean ships in the Yellow Sea after the North's Nov. 23 attack. That was a significant move, symbolically and practically, since the U.S. had canceled a plan to send in the George Washington after the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan on March 26, for fear of upsetting the Chinese.

Symbolically, the presence of the George Washington showed the Americans shoulder-to-shoulder with the South Koreans — willing to deploy their biggest force in defiance of China’s claims to the Yellow Sea as an extension of Chinese territory. Practically, the Americans and South Koreans gained experience in coordinating complicated missions. If war were to break out, those lessons will prove indispensable. The Americans have followed up on that display, moreover, with still bigger exercises with Japanese forces, again to the consternation of the Chinese.

Still, the overriding question remains: How often does North Korea have to prick the hide of South Korea before the South acts forcefully to deter the North from striking again?

The initial response to asymmetric warfare need not be to send the George Washington to the rescue. Before that happens, South Korean artillery and fighter aircraft have to pound supply points, gun positions and harbors identified as targets in the North. If a North Korean vessel fires on a South Korean target, the answer may be not only to sink the attacker but also to bomb the naval base that harbored the vessel that mounted the attack.

Nobody ever considered that response in the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan. Bureaucrats and politicians cringe at the risks. Might North Korea then turn its artillery on the Seoul-Incheon megalopolis of more than 20 million? Would North Koreans fire at lesser population centers closer to the demilitarized zone — or attack a South Korean guard post south of the line? How should the South Koreans respond then, and when would their American ally join the fray?

The answer is the Americans and South Koreans have to set a “red line” beyond which they will not let the North Koreans get away in sneering triumph after more surprises. They need to challenge North Korea, to be ready to fight for the integrity of South Korea and the region.

The existence of the North’s ultimate club, its nuclear stockpile, should hardly keep U.S. and South Korean forces from fighting back after “incidents” that will go on and on, in more terrible form, unless answered with more than rhetoric — or even war games.

Donald Kirk is the author, most recently, of "Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine."