- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2010

SEOUL | South Koreans breathed a collective sigh of relief Monday after a test-firing of artillery in the Yellow Sea passed without North Korea’s threatened retaliation. But as the smoke clears and tensions simmer, the crisis is far from over.

South Korean marines, watched by 20 observers from the 28,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea and seven members of the U.N. Command that oversees the 1953 cease-fire on the peninsula, fired artillery for 94 minutes into waters off Yeonpyeong, an island about 7 1/2 miles off the coast of North Korea, on Monday afternoon.

On Nov. 23, the fishing village and marine base on the island were devastated by North Korean artillery after a similar drill, killing two marines and two civilian construction workers. Yeonpyeong, which has been South Korean territory during the Korean War armistice, straddles the northern limit line, the disputed maritime border between the Koreas.

Before Monday’s exercise, about 100 members of the island’s population of about 1,400 who were not evacuated to the mainland - largely fishermen and their families - were ushered into bunkers and given gas masks. A source at Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said that southern naval and air assets were on alert and ready to strike back at any northern retaliation.

The South said its guns fired to the south and west of the island, away from the northern mainland; the North claims those waters as its own.

Pyongyang reportedly deployed rocket artillery and fighter aircraft to its west coast and earlier threatened a deadly return strike. After the drill was over, however, it released a statement via the Korea Central News Agency.

“The revolutionary armed forces of [North Korea] did not feel any need to retaliate against every despicable military provocation,” the KCNA said. “The world should properly know who is the true champion of peace and who is the real provocateur of a war.”

At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley said Pyongyang’s lack of response is the way normal nations should behave.

“This is the way countries are supposed to act. The South Korean exercise was defensive in nature. The North Koreans were notified in advance. There was no basis for a belligerent response,” he said in a statement.

Although North Korea did not hit back at South Korea’s military, fully alerted and ready for trouble, a retaliation is in the cards, said Mike Breen, author of “The Koreans.”

North Korea is the weaker state and will not react in a way where it is clearly going to lose,” he said. “They have said they are going to retaliate, and I think they will - at a time and place of their own choosing.”

North Korea’s provocations in the 57 years since the armistice was signed - commando raids, terrorist attacks, naval and military strikes - have customarily been surprise attacks.

South Korea occupies five islands - some of which were used during the Korean War as staging bases for partisan operations - off North Korea’s coast. The two sides could not agree on a Yellow Sea border for the 1953 truce, so U.S. generals unilaterally drew the northern limit line.

In recent years, North Korea has aggressively disputed the line, which covers rich crab-fishing grounds. Patrol boats were involved in fatal naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and 2009. In March, the South Korean corvette Cheonan was torpedoed close to the northern limit line, with the loss of 46 sailors.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s administration is under political fire for its lack of resolve in attacks this year and apparently is determined to flex its muscles. If Pyongyang strikes back, the peninsula - and possibly the U.S., Japan and China - could be dragged into a vortex of escalation.

South Korea’s streets have largely been quiet, with small protests calling for both a stronger military stance and a more conciliatory political posture. But on Monday, a senior opposition figure criticized Seoul’s right-wing administration for refusing to engage with North Korea and generating unnecessary animosity.

“President Lee Myung-bak, for three years in office, has failed in ‘peacekeeping’ and not even started work on ‘peacemaking,’ ” Rep. Chung Dong-young, a former presidential candidate and a key figure in the previous administration’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North, told foreign reporters. “In addition, he revealed defective vulnerabilities in the national security posture.”

No diplomatic solution appears to be on the horizon.

Although Chinese envoy Dai Bingguo has been shuttling between capitals to defuse the crisis, and reports from Pyongyang state that North Korean officials have told New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that they will permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country, Seoul and Washington are refusing to rejoin Beijing-sponsored six-party talks on denuclearization.

The two allies say they are employing “strategic patience” and are unwilling to re-enter talks without clear signs from Pyongyang of good faith in the negotiations.

“Some people always believe there is a solution if you negotiate long and hard enough,” said Dan Pinkston, who heads the International Crisis Group’s Seoul office. “But a lot of this does not matter what you do: The North Koreans have demonstrated time and again that they renege on commitments already made.”

Monday’s Yellow Sea thunder followed inconclusive debate at the United Nations on Sunday after Russia, concerned about flash-point tensions on the Korean Peninsula and urging “maximum restraint,” called an emergency meeting of the Security Council.

France, Britain and the United States reportedly wanted a strong statement condemning North Korea’s attack of Nov. 23. China and Russia did not concur.

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice criticized the U.N. Security Council’s failure to condemn North Korean military provocations and urged more international pressure on Pyongyang.

“This council’s responsibility to ensure peace and stability weighs heaviest at moments such as these,” Ms. Rice said. “Yet there has been no statement from this body to clearly condemn the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island - an important step to identify and respond to this outrageous act.”

The United States is continuing to work with the governments of Japan, China, Russia and South Korea to “find a diplomatic path that protects peace and stability on the peninsula and fulfills the goals of the 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement,” she said in a statement.

“The door is open to Pyongyang to join and benefit from such an effort, but only if it abandons the misguided notion that violence, threats and provocation are the path toward achievement of its goals.”

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