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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 23, 2010

War of words with N. Korea

 •  U.S. reconsiders weapon

By Richard Halloran

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Yoon Duk-yong, right, co-head of the team investigating the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, shows torpedo parts salvaged from the Yellow Sea.

JUNG YEON-JE | Associated Press

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It was a tale, said Shakespeare 400 years ago, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

If the playwright were alive today, he might write something like that about the opening salvo of the United States and South Korea in a war of words with North Korea over the sinking in March of a South Korean warship with the loss of 46 lives.

The South Korean government last week published a report on that sinking for which investigators compiled seemingly compelling evidence that a North Korean submarine had torpedoed the corvette Cheonan, clearly an act of war.

The sinking was the latest in a series of provocations by North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In response, however, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and the United Nations have taken no decisive action to force the North Koreans to back off. The fear in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo has been that assertive deeds could spiral into full-blown hostilities.

President Lee Myung-bak said South Korea would embark on "resolute countermeasures" to get North Korea to "admit its wrongdoing." Charles Pritchard, head of the Seoul-funded Korea Economic Institute in Washington, was quoted in the Washington Post saying Seoul could cut off trade with North Korea, close a North-South industrial park, or ask the U.N. Security Council to condemn the attack.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted in The New York Times from Tokyo: "It is important to send a clear message to North Korea that provocative actions have consequences. We cannot allow this attack on South Korea to go unanswered by the international community." She was on a trip to Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul to seek united action against Pyong-yang but said it would be "premature" to be specific now.

Almost simultaneously, the North Koreans said, in effect: "We didn't do it but even if we did, war will break out if you retaliate." The official North Korean Central News Agency said if Seoul opted for "counter-action," the North would react with "merciless punishment" including a freeze on inter-Korean relations and abrogation of a non-aggression agreement.

"The puppet group (referring to South Korea's government) has created such a grave situation on the Korean Peninsula that a war may break out right now," KCNA asserted. The North Korean bluster conjured up earlier bullying in which Pyongyang threatened to destroy Seoul "in a sea of fire."

Victor Cha, a scholar at Georgetown University in Washington and an authority on Korea, wrote in the Financial Times that, for the Obama administration, "the re-establishment of deterrence in Korea should be its top near-term priority in Asia." He added, however, "After a strong start in its first year, the administration's policies towards the region are drifting."

Like Cha, the majority of other observers in the U.S., South Korea and Japan counseled against military action. None of the suggested actions, however, have deterred North Korea in the past. Here then is a different view:

The greatest fear is that North Korea could lob hundreds of artillery rounds into Seoul and its suburbs from guns deployed in a swath north of the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula. Therefore, destroying those tubes and their ammunition depots, many of which are underground, would seem to be a prime target.

A surprise attack from B-1 bombers dropping conventional (not nuclear) bombs; warships and submarines launching precision guided cruise missiles from the seas east and west of the peninsula, and South Korean and U.S. artillery firing from south of the DMZ, coordinated to land explosives simultaneously, could trap their targets underground and shock the poorly trained North Korean Army into standing down.

Risky? Admittedly, yes. But doing nothing would be to risk another violent North Korean provocation in the unknown future.