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Will the North fire at South Korean targets?

Opinion: Watch for action during crabbing season in the waters off the Korean peninsula.

A South Korean Navy warship patrols off the Yeonpyeong Island near the western maritime border between the two Koreas, March 10, 2009. While the crab fisherman on this island prepare for a haul that will bring them the bulk of their income for the year, North Korea already tested its artillery to strike near their fishing ground. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

NAGANO, Japan — Expect North Korean naval and land forces to fire missiles and guns in coming days at South Korean targets in a disputed north-south border area in the Yellow Sea, killing some South Koreans and suffering a measured military retaliation.

After threatening the South verbally for months, the North has engaged in a series of provocative missile launches and a second nuclear test. Last week it said South Korea’s decision to participate in an international naval anti-proliferation program had created a “state of war,” and warned that it would respond with overwhelming force to even the slightest “hostile” act. In response, the South Korean navy has sent its most up-to-date high-speed guided missile ship, as well as helicopter gunships and howitzers, to the area.

The North’s determination to put on a show of force is a response, most analysts believe, to changes of administration in South Korea — which switched last year from a decade of “sunshine policy” to a relatively hard-line stance — and in the United States.

And it’s related especially to the current succession crisis in the isolated, communist North. Intelligence sources cite reports, rumors and analyses — but no official announcement as yet and nothing with a named source behind it — asserting that ruler Kim Jong Il has settled on his third son, Jong Un, to take over after him and wants the heir to have the prestige of showing command of a great military power. By many accounts, suffering a stroke last August concentrated the 68-year-old Kim Jong Il’s mind.

As for the timing of a likely chest-thumping military provocation, “it is now crabbing season,” said Bruce E. Bechtol, Jr., professor at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College. “This is when the confusion of many fishing boats on both sides of the line creates a perfect storm for the North Korean navy to cause trouble. This has always been when they have created provocations in the past.”

Both North and South Korean ships in the past have had difficulty staying within the formal borders as they pursued illegal crabbers, especially Chinese ships, within the disputed area.

“The South is expecting a naval confrontation,'' said Bechtol, who chronicled past North-South naval confrontations in his 2007 book “Red Rogue,” in which he argued that the North had to have planned carefully, and trained exactingly, for previous confrontations in 1999 and 2002, although in the end it was beaten.

“Thus, the North would have to be very careful if they initiated one,” he said.

“The South Korean naval craft are distinctly superior to those of the North,” Bechtol said. “Unless the North Korean navy tricks them into an isolated event where a smaller craft is by itself, any confrontation would likely evolve into a North Korean ship or boat being sunk and Pyongyang having egg on its face as it did in 1999.”