South Korea keeps wary eye on North Korea during war games
North Korea has refrained so far from retaliating against the ongoing US-South Korea war games. Analysts say the North may try a long-range missile test toward the United States or Japan.
Lee Jin-man/AP Photo/Pool
American and South Korean ships and planes fired on imaginary North Korean submarines Monday as four days of joint exercises reached the half-way mark with no sign of North Korea doing anything to spoil the war games â€“ yet.
US and South Korean officials are not quite prepared to say they have called the North Koreansâ€™ bluff by ignoring its threats of a strong â€“ even nuclear â€“ response to the exercises. But most analysts are convinced that the North had no intention of challenging the might of the air and naval forces amassed off South Koreaâ€™s east coast.
â€śI donâ€™t think North Korea will respond during the exercise,â€ť says Kim Sung-han, professor at Korea Universityâ€™s Graduate School of International Studies. â€śWe donâ€™t expect another provocation.â€ť
Kim Tae-woo, long-time analyst of North Korean intentions at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, doesn't think North Korea is ready to explode a nuclear device for the third time. â€śA long-range missile test is more possible,â€ť he says. â€śThatâ€™s easier. We should be prepared.â€ť
As some 20 ships and 200 aircraft zigzagged through the seas and skies about 70 miles off South Koreaâ€™s coast, the North Korean media kept up a steady drumbeat of denunciations reminiscent of the Northâ€™s diatribes during previous US-South Korea military exercises.
The difference this time was that the stakes have risen sharply since the sinking of South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March in which 46 sailors died. A South Korean investigation, which included the views of experts from the US, Britain, Australia, and Sweden, blamed a North Korean midget submarine for firing the torpedo that split the Cheonan in two and sunk it in minutes.
North Korea denies any role in the attack.
Divide and conquer strategy?
North Koreaâ€™s strategy of denial appears to many analysts to have sharpened the divisions among the nations that have participated in recent years in so-called six-party talks on the Northâ€™s nuclear program. North Korea has said it now wants to return to the talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, but â€śwe have a crack among the parties,â€ť says Professor Kim Sung-han. China and Russia support the North, he says, while the US and Japan support the South.
On a more practical level, â€śOperation Invincible Spirit,â€ť as the current war games are called, has provided an opportunity for American and South Korean forces to perfect coordination on some of their most sophisticated weaponry in the biggest joint exercises conducted by the two allies in more than 30 years.
The US commander in Korea, Gen. Walter â€śSkipâ€ť Sharp, said the exercises â€śsend a clear message to North Korea that its aggressive behavior must stopâ€ť and that the US and South Korea â€śare committed to enhancing our combined defensive capabilities."
As warplanes roared from the deck of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington, at 98,000 tons one of the biggest in the US navy, US and South Korean destroyers and at least one South Korean submarine cruised surrounding waters. For the first time, US Air Force F-22 raptors also joined the games, taking off with scores of other aircraft from the major US base at Osan.
Aside from symbolic significance, the focus on anti-submarine warfare showed the frustration over countering future submarine attacks. A South Korean military spokesman said the exercises Monday were â€śaimed at better detecting intrusions by an enemyâ€™s submarines and attacking them.â€ť
North Koreaâ€™s national defense commission, the center of power for leader Kim Jong-il, the commission chairman, greeted the war games with a blitzkrieg of invective ranging from a warning of â€śretaliatory sacred warâ€ť to the threat of deploying a â€śpowerful nuclear deterrent.â€ť
The strong language inspired derisive rejoinders from analysts mingled with concern about what it meant in terms of North Koreaâ€™s ambitions as a nascent nuclear power.
â€śThey feel they cannot allow this [military exercise] to happen without this reaction,â€ť says Han Sung-joo, who has served previously as South Koreaâ€™s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington. â€śI donâ€™t think anything will happen in the next few days.â€ť
Analysts see the allusion to â€śnuclear deterrence,â€ť however, as indicating North Koreaâ€™s ambitions for its nuclear program. North Korea has twice conducted underground nuclear tests, first in October 2006 and again in May of last year, and is believed to have enough weapons-grade plutonium for between six and a dozen warheads.
â€śThey might want to use this occasion as an opportunity or excuse to do something with their nuclear program,â€ť says Mr. Han. â€śThey can conduct another nuclear test or do something with their missiles.â€ť North Korea has successfully built short and medium-range missiles and in April of last year test-fired a long-range missile capable of reaching the US west coast.
The China factor
In any case, Chinaâ€™s refusal to support the United States and South Korea in blaming North Korea for the attack on the Cheonan is assumed to have emboldened the North. China instead went along with a watered-down statement issued by the UN Security Council that noted the investigation and condemned the attack but did not hold North Korea responsible for it.
â€śOne element here is China,â€ť says Han Sung-joo. The North Koreans â€śprobably think they have managed to bring China to their side. They are trying to make full use of what they consider to be Chinaâ€™s backing.â€ť
Analysts say that the view that China will always back the North may also lead to another unexpected attack on the South. â€śThey usually try to do the thing that were not expected,â€ť says Mr. Han, but he doubts if North Korea â€ścan do anything that will force us to take retaliatory measures.â€ť
Mr. Kim, from the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, agrees. â€śThey cannot do anything against our exercises,â€ť he says.
â€śThey may plan something against South Korea, and they practice nuclear blackmail.â€ť