Will the North fire at South Korean targets?

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.”

The South clearly is determined not to be intimidated. The guided missile ship that it has sent to the scene of the likely skirmish, the 440-ton Yun Yeong Ha, is named after a lieutenant commander who was killed in the 1999 exchange and is commanded by a survivor of that battle.

Despite the risks to the North, Bechtol said in an email exchange, “I think an 'incident' could be in the cards.”

Since the Northerners no longer recognize the boundary line set by the other side after the Korean War, they would consider patrols in the areas outside of these areas to be their sovereign prerogative, Bechtol said.

“The North Koreans have very effective land-based anti-ship missile batteries. I am spitballing here, but that would be one way to ratchet up the tension. If suddenly the North Korean navy clears all its craft out (from the disputed boundary areas), if I was a South Korean admiral I would get my ships outta there fast.”

“While I think a provocation is possible,” Bechtol said, “I would expect the training, tactics and techniques to be different than any that we have ever seen. Since the North Korean navy does not allow me in the planning sessions I don't know what that could be. But it would have to be something involving the element of surprise, utilizing inferior weapons systems in tactics that gave North Korea the advantage, and that left the South Koreans with egg on their face.”

The Seoul daily JoongAng Ilbo quoted an unnamed South Korea defense official as saying that if South Korean vessels were attacked, the South would then target North Korean missile bases.

That’s a plausible outcome because, even as the North has strengthened its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction with its tests of long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, non-nuclear South Korea has taken advantage of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” and built up its conventional forces to the point they no longer pale next to those of the North.

Bradley K. Martin is a 30-year veteran Asia correspondent for organizations including Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, Asia Times and, most recently, Bloomberg News. The author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," he is currently based in Nagano, Japan.

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