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Friday, March 6, 2009      

The latest N. Korean threats — against S. Korean airliners — are credible

By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON — North Korea may be off the United States State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism, but its warning to South Korea about the safety of flights through its air space has escalated fears of a surprise North Korean strike to new levels.   

Inconceivable though it may sound for North Korea to fire on a flight carrying passengers to South Korea, the North's threat is drawing demands for the State Department to put North Korea's name back on the list from which former president George W Bush ordered its removal last June.

Officials at the State Department, National Security Council and Pentagon seem to agree, however, that such a strong response to North Korean rhetoric would be premature. The State Department in particular is falling back on a word that's come up a number of times lately to describe North Koreas's conduct — "unhelpful".

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during her swing through Northeast Asia last month, described North Korean rhetoric as "unhelpful", to which a State Department spokesman added "distinctly" as a sign of increasing worries that North Korea may try to pull off a violent surprise in the near future.

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Conservatives inside the Pentagon and the armed forces elsewhere say placing North Korea back on the list of nations sponsoring terrorism may serve as a warning against an act of violence that some observers describe as "an incident waiting to happen".

Analysts cite one precedent for North Korea firing on an unarmed civilian passenger plane: the bombing over the Andaman Sea on Nov. 29, 1987, of a Korean Air plane with 115 people aboard. It was that incident, perpetrated by two North Koreans, that led the State Department to include North Korea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

North Korea made its removal from the list a firm condition for following through on its agreement to provide a complete inventory of its nuclear program, and the U.S. yielded in hopes the North would move ahead on disablement — and then the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities and the six to 12 warheads it's already thought to have produced.

As has happened so often in the tortuous history of dealings with North Korea, the agreement is coming unglued. North Korea has been adamant against conditions demanded by the U.S. for verification of all it's doing to disable its program, has refused to remove evidence for scientific scrutiny elsewhere, and in recent weeks has said it will not give up its nuclear warheads under any circumstances.

North Korean expressions of outrage appear to be tied to two sets of simultaneous circumstances, according to analysts in the U.S. and in Seoul.

One is the conservative policy of South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak, who since his inauguration in February of last year has conditioned all South Korean aid to North Korea on the North's agreement to a realistic agreement on verification.

The second set of circumstances is the illness of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Il, who's believed to have suffered a stroke last August.

North Korea's propaganda mill has been churning out photographs of Kim purporting to show him on a record number of visits this year to military units, farms and factories. However, the absence of video of Kim in motion or any sound of his voice fuels the belief that the photographs are a cover-up.

Ostensibly, Kim is in control while in the process of turning over power to one of his three sons. The selected son will eventually become a front man for the generals in whom Kim has long placed his trust as chairman of the North's National Defense Commission.

North Korea's warning against civilian aircraft goes beyond recent moves to prepare a long-range Taepodong-2 missile for launching into orbit from a site on the northeastern coast.

North Korea has sought to explain the launch as necessary to place a satellite into orbit, the same excuse North Korea gave for launching Taeopodong-1 from the same site on Aug. 31, 1998. The earlier Taepodong flew over the main Japanese island of Honshu before plummeting into the Pacific without launching a satellite — even as North Korean rhetoric at the time said the satellite was in orbit and broadcasting songs of praise for Kim Jong-Il and his long-ruling father, Kim Il-Sung.

North Korea failed in its only other attempt at launching a Taepodong when a Taepodong-2 crashed into the sea within 40 seconds after its launch on July 6, 2006, three months before the North conducted its one and only nuclear test, an underground blast on Oct. 9, 2006, that was far weaker than expected.

Officials in Washington fear, however, that North Korea will sooner or later master the technique for launching a long-range missile, just as the North has developed the expertise to produce and fire relatively short-range Scud and Rodong missiles.

The fear is the North will then be able to affix a warhead laden with the nuclear, chemical or biological materiel that it's known to be developing in programs that attract almost no mention while diplomats and military intelligence analysts focus on the nukes.

North Korean strategists appear to have hit on the notion of threatening passenger aircraft in a challenge to the United States and South Korea to call off annual joint war games next week called "Key Resolve and Foal Eagle".

For the first time in seven years, North Korean and American generals have met this week at the truce village of Panmunjom at which North Korea has demanded the U.S. cancel the war games and desist from "provocations" by U.S. troops along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has divided the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War in the early 1950s.

The U.S. has denied any moves along the border, an easy charge to ignore since only a handful of American soldiers remain in the immediate area. The few U.S. troops there are members of an American battalion that performs ceremonial duties, manning the line in full view of busloads of tourists who look across the border from south of the line.

American military commanders in recent years have devoted much time to convincing South Korean defense ministers and generals of the wisdom of for pulling the U.S. Second Infantry Division from its historic bases about 35 kilometers south of the DMZ to a newly built base at Pyongtaek, 60 kilometers south of Seoul. The U.S. now has 28,500 troops in South Korea, down from 37,000 eight years ago, and has assured South Korean leaders no more troops will be leaving.

The immediate question is whether North Korea, during the exercises, will begin to make good on any of its threats — by test-firing the Taepodong-2 that it's moved to the launch site; by firing on South Korean vessels off the west coast in the Yellow Sea in disputed waters; or, as a last resort, by actually harassing if not firing on civilian aircraft.

South Korea's two carriers, Korean Air and Asiana, are taking no chances. Both have diverted aircraft on international flights from North Korean air space, causing the planes to take an hour longer to reach the main international airport of Incheon, by the Yellow Sea about 30 kilometers west of Seoul.

Although it's hard to imagine such an incident, the peninsula's history is full of seemingly impossible events:

Aside from the 1987 bombing of the Korean Air plane, there was the hijacking of a domestic Korean Air passenger plane in 1969 with 51 people on board. The plane was forced to land in the east coast port of Wonsan, and a dozen people, including the entire crew, were never released.

Then there was the shoot-down on April 15, 1969, of an unarmed U.S. Air Force surveillance aircraft about 140 kilometers off the coast with 31 men aboard, all of whom perished. In recent years, North Korean old-model MiG fighters, with barely enough fuel for training flights, have pursued similar aircraft off the coast.

The most notorious incident, of course, was the shoot-down on Sept. 1, 1983 — not by North Koreans but by a Soviet fighter pilot — of a Korean Air plane that strayed into Soviet air space over Sakhalin Island with 269 passengers and crew, all of whom perished.

South Korean officials have been denouncing the latest North Korean threats as "inhumane" and "violations of international law". In any case, the North has already reaped publicity and negotiating advantage as yet another U.S. special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, traverses the region, arriving on Saturday in Seoul after talks in Beijing.

Bosworth is pursuing the six-party talks, not held since last year, including China, the host, as well as the U.S., Russia, Japan and the two Koreas. Increasingly, his quest appears irrelevant as attention focuses on whatever North Korea will dream up next to create fear and consternation in the region.

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