Gen. Han Min-koo. (Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff / Flickr)
Seoul - South Korea’s senior military officer threatened Thursday to “crush” North Korea should it launch another attack like its shelling last month of a South Korean island.
“Fellow soldiers, as (Joint Chiefs of Staff) chairman, I will completely crush the enemy with combined forces in coordination with the United States,” Gen. Han Min-koo said Thursday during a visit to Yeonpyeong Island, where North Korean artillery killed two civilians and two marines.
Han’s comments, carried in a government statement, underlined continued tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which appear to be at their worst since fighting in the Korean War ended more than half a century ago. While the American military has called for calm, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, at a news conference Wednesday didn't oppose Seoul’s plans to launch airstrikes as a counterattack.
With many expecting another aggressive move by the North sooner or later, South Korean analysts have warned repeatedly that the situation is precarious. Seoul, they say, has the dilemma of trying to confront an enemy that has little to lose without causing a war. If South Korean officials move too brusquely they could spark a battle, observers said, but if they're too timid, the North might well continue to stage attacks on a country that houses some 28,500 U.S. troops.
“We need strong measures to deter North Korea; that is the basic line of policy that we have to pursue, but still we need to avoid war,” said Choi Wooseon, a professor of national security and unification studies at a South Korean Foreign Ministry research institute. “The difference between escalation to war and the maintenance of peace is really subtle in this kind of intense situation.”
The South Korean government has come under immense pressure to act from a public that’s shifted between fear and rage and has demanded large-scale retaliation for any future Northern hostilities.
“When North Koreans do it again, and they will do it again … there is far greater probability that the South Koreans will strike back, because this is what the army wants, this is what the public wants,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University who's widely seen as a leading expert on North Korea.
However, Lankov said, the violence probably won't go beyond one round of tit-for-tat strikes.
“I can easily imagine headlines on the front pages: ‘War in Korea!’ and pictures full of fire and smoke,” he said. “It will seriously damage the economy and it will really create a sense of tension … exactly the same people who are demanding a retaliation will start blaming the government for failing to handle North Korea.”
For now, the call for action against the North has spread to younger South Koreans, who in the past often had resisted conservatives’ views about Pyongyang, arguing that a hawkish stance would only bring more trouble.
“That attack (on Yeonpyeong) showed there is a fight between our two countries. But we couldn’t fight back; we failed,” said Joseph Koo, 38, who runs a small information-technology company in Seoul. “At a certain point, if we’re being attacked, we have to hit back to defeat their will.”
Kang Ye-seul, a 20-year-old with darkly painted fingernails and a red purse, agreed that a tougher stance is needed.
“The government has to be stronger when it deals with the North,” Kang said. “They (the North) betrayed us.”
The problem, defense analyst Park Syung-je said, is that there seems to be no easy way to deter North Korea, where the paranoid, totalitarian regime of Kim Jong Il has responded to past sanctions, aid projects and negotiations alike with nuclear tests and threats.
Because Pyongyang is almost totally cut off from the world, even the most senior of outside observers are left to guess why it behaves one way or the other. Explanations for this year’s attacks — the sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors in March and then the shelling last month — range from a crisis over succession due to the young age of Kim Jong Il’s heir apparent to the North looking to get the West back to the negotiating table.
So far, North Korea’s only major ally, China, has declined to exert much public pressure on Pyongyang. On Thursday, China’s state news wire reported that the North had released official findings that the South was, in fact, to blame for the North targeting its island with artillery.
“Unfortunately, to be realistic, the (Seoul) government doesn’t have leverage. If Kim Jong Il wants to launch a bomb, he will do it,” said Park, who advises the South Korean Defense Department.
Park paused and said that while he had no answers, there had been discussions in military circles lately about the U.S. bombing run on Libya in 1986 and whether it was effective in restraining Muammar Gaddafi.
“We have very limited options right now, but if North Korea is continuously making trouble then it might be possible to pre-emptively strike certain places,” Park said. “If we want to stop this, we have to do something.”