Seoul Nears Test of North Korean Threats Skip to main content

Seoul Nears Test of North Korean Threats

SEOUL—South Korea is pushing ahead with a U.S.-backed artillery test in a rare direct challenge to North Korean threats, prompting an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council and calls for calm from Asian neighbors.
Associated Press
South Korean marines patrolling on Yeonpyeong island, South Korea, Sunday.
The test, which will likely happen Monday or Tuesday, is a pivotal moment in the fractious inter-Korean relationship. The Security Council scheduled a meeting in New York on Sunday at Russia's request, underscoring pressure on South Korea from both Moscow and Beijing to cancel the test.
The test will take place on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which North Korean forces shelled last month in what appears to be an effort to effectively redefine border territory in the Yellow Sea off the countries' west coast. The shelling killed four South Koreans, two of them civilians.
With the test, South Korea is walking a tightrope by trying to defend waters it has controlled since the Korean War of the 1950s in a way that doesn't escalate into more fighting, which would threaten the safety of its 50 million people and the vibrancy of its economy, the world's 15th-biggest.
On Sunday, South Korean defense officials called the planned test "usual and justifiable." "We won't take into consideration North Korean threats and diplomatic situations before holding the live-fire drill. If weather permits, it will be held as scheduled," a spokesman for South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Amid all the official statements and diplomatic maneuvering over the weekend, there were few signs of tension in South Korea itself. Shopping malls were filled in preparation for the holidays and roads were clogged with people on weekend commutes to and from rural getaways.
Residents still living on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong fear reprisals from the North if South Korea's planned live fire drill goes ahead. Video courtesy of Reuters.
There have been no signs of unusual troop movement or war preparations in North Korea, a person familiar with military surveillance of North Korea said. And, while North Korea since Friday has issued several threats of retaliation if a new test is conducted, all came from relatively low-level agencies and news publications rather than the offices associated with its dictator, Kim Jong Il.
"There's a lot of informed people here who seem not to be worried about it," said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said Sunday. "It's not just ordinary people going about their business."
U.S. officials said North Korea should not view South Korea's upcoming drills as a threat. In Japan, spokesman Noriyuki Shikata declined to comment on diplomatic discussions but said the test has Tokyo's backing.
China and Russia urged calm. "This situation directly affects the national security interests of the Russian Federation," Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the U.N., said Saturday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov discussed the crisis by telephone Saturday, according to a statement on the foreign ministry's website, and both called for restraint. "China firmly opposes any actions to cause tension and worsen the situation," Mr. Yang said.
Also Saturday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun said China had made "unremitting efforts" to persuade North and South Korea to restrain themselves. China had "recently" summoned the ambassadors of North and South Korea, he said, without revealing when, according to another statement on the foreign ministry website.
South Korean residents of Yeonpyeong Island fear a military drill could provoke fresh aggression from North Korea. Video courtesy of Reuters.
China doesn't want to do further damage to its relations with South Korea, an important trading partner, analysts say. Beijing recently launched a diplomatic drive to reassure countries that have been worried by Beijing's more forceful stance on territorial issues over the last year.
For example, Chinese state-run media dispassionately reported on a Saturday clash between a Chinese fishing boat and a South Korean coast guard vessel that resulted in a capsized boat and that left one Chinese crew member dead. Chinese officials didn't immediately return calls for comment. Encounters between Chinese fishing boards and South Korean ships enforcing fishing laws are common.
South Korea has controlled Yeonpyeong Island and the waters around it since before the war and placed artillery positions after the war to defend water passages to the South Korean port city of Incheon.
North Korea has repeatedly said it fired on the island because the South's artillery test on Nov. 23 lobbed shells into its territory. Initially, Seoul countered that it fired away from North Korean waters on that day. But later, Pyongyang claimed it controls all the waters around the island and said that any artillery testing from Yeonpyeong is an assault on its territory.
While South Korea is betting that North Korea will do nothing in response to the drill, it has proceeded carefully. The South Korean military briefly planned to hold such a drill a week after the attack. Instead, it rebuilt the damaged marine post on the island and reinforced its artillery guns with multiple rocket launchers. On Thursday, the military announced the drill would happen as soon as Saturday, but it then pushed it to Monday citing weather conditions.
Mr. Pinkston said the delay provided an opportunity for South Korea's military to observe whether North Korea was preparing for another attack. But he also noted North Korea may not react to another Yeonpyeong test right away or with the same tactics it used on Nov. 23.
The U.S.-led United Nations Command, responsible for overseeing the armistice agreement, will observe the drill, with about 20 Americans and a handful of soldiers from other countries on hand.
North Korea has disputed the Yellow Sea boundary for more than a decade with naval incursions and repeatedly stated a desire to redraw the inter-Korean maritime border that was created in the armistice agreement that ended hostilities in 1953.
Its reasons for escalating the matter with the Nov. 23 attack are unknown. Analysts have speculated Mr. Kim is trying to solidify support for a power transition to his son, Kim Jong Eun, and force Seoul to restart financial assistance that was cut off in 2008.
In many ways, the test-firing on Yeonpyeong presents a direct challenge to North Korea in a way Pyongyang hasn't dealt with since a tense episode with the U.S. in August 1976.
In that incident, North Korea killed two U.S. soldiers who tried to chop down a tree blocking a view of the North in the demilitarized zone, the inter-Korean land border that's heavily guarded on both sides. Amid more threats from Pyongyang, the U.S. several days later sent in more soldiers to finish the job, but it backed them up with an armed platoon, 27 helicopters and a number of B-52 bombers, a flexing of military muscle that caused North Korea to order citizens into bomb shelters.
Before announcing the new test on Yeonpyeong, South Korean defense officials said they will strike back at any further attacks by the North. They haven't disclosed plans for a counterattack if North Korea reacts to this week's test.
At the heart of North Korea's current dispute with the South is a vaguely worded paragraph in the 1953 armistice agreement, which gave control of Yeonpyeong and four other islands to the South but says nothing about the waters around them. North Korea as recently as Saturday claimed the pact says the waters belong to it.
North Korea several times over the decades has declared it would no longer abide by the terms of the armistice at all. The latest was in May 2009, several days after it tested a nuclear explosive for the second time.
—Jeremy Page, Joe Lauria and Kana Inagaki contributed to this article. Write to Evan Ramstad at 


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