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Friday, May 7, 2010     GET REAL

Memo from S. Korean president to Hu Jintao: Kim (Jong-Il) did it

By Donald Kirk

SEOUL — Here was a summit with an explosive twist. How better to enliven an otherwise boring if mysterious mission to China by the leader of North Korea than for the leader of South Korea to virtually pin the blame on the North for the sinking of a South Korean warship?


North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il steps into a car at a hotel in Dalian, China on May 3.   Reuters/Kyodo
The key word is "virtually". President Lee Myung-bak has not quite formally accused North Korea of torpedoing the Cheonan, with a loss of 46 lives, while on routine patrol in the Yellow Sea on March 26. Rather, he's promised a "resolute" response, and his officials are saying they've now found a bit of an explosive that leaves no doubt North Korea was responsible.

The mission of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il would have been singularly uninteresting, at least as far as public pronouncements were concerned, were it not for a steady barrage of statements and revelations that President Lee seems to have orchestrated to get the Chinese on his side on all issues concerning the Cheonan.

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He made the timing of the running commentary from Seoul unmistakably clear when he remarked to members of his ruling party that his government would inform China of the results of its investigation at once and expected China to "play a role" in doing something about it.

Not that there's much China can or will do. President Hu Jintao no doubt urged Kim Jong-Il to focus on his ever-deteriorating economy and to return to six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, but it's unlikely China exerted any real pressure on the North to confess and compensate South Korea for the loss of the warship and its sailors.

The final word from Kim Jong-Il's first mission to North Korea in four years is that he promised to work for a "denuclearized" Korean Peninsula. When it comes to the Dear Leader's commitment on that score, said Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, his view "remains unchanged". Which also means, to superficial appearances, that nothing has changed in North-South relations or in the North's refusal to get rid of its nuclear weapons program.

The mood, however, has definitely changed in Seoul. Whatever Kim Jong-Il may have said about returning to six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, the sinking of the Cheonan rules out any possibility of South Korea or its American ally returning to the table in the near future.

In addition to that, North Korea has taken over all the facilities that cost Hyundai Asan more than $1.5 billion to build in the tourist zone at the base of Mount Kumkang, overlooking the east coast just above the line between the two Koreas. It is also making life uncomfortable for 50 small- and medium-sized South Korean enterprises in the economic complex at Kaesong, on the opposite side of the Korean Peninsula, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Seoul.

South Korean leaders see the sinking of the Cheonan, one of a dozen corvettes plying the waters around South Korea, as more serious than any number of other bloody episodes perpetrated by the North over the years since the Korean War armistice was signed in July 1953.

"The sinking of the Cheonan was unprecedented in human history, other than in wartime," said a South Korean general, perhaps engaging in hyperbole but nonetheless expressing the sentiments of the country's top leadership. "It was the equivalent of a declaration of war." Almost daily, the South is building up its case — if not for war, then for a measure of international sympathy and support that will finally bring Kim Jong-Il to heel.

The latest word, attributed to a government official talking to the South Korean media, is that "explosive traces" were found "in the Cheonan's chimney [funnel] and the seabed" around the vessel's stern, which broke off from the main portion of the vessel with most of the victims inside within a minute of the explosion. These traces "were all confirmed as those of the high explosive RDX", said the official, as quoted by the South's Yonhap news agency, using the acronym for "research department explosive", described a "white crystalline solid" that's "the most powerful high explosive and a main ingredient in plastic explosives".

That kind of evidence, however, is guaranteed not to induce North Korea to acknowledge having fired the torpedo or to provide the South with the ammunition for more than never-ending recriminations and accusations. Nor is it at all likely that China will come down on the side of the South as long as its top priority remains stability on the Korean Peninsula.

The incident, though, is certain to deepen the military confrontation that goes on dividing the peninsula. The watchword for the South Korean armed forces is clearly "never again".

"We need to devise different scenarios and responses to a North Korean attack," said a senior military official. "We need to renew our attention on conventional and asymmetrical weapons and try to come up with a new plan."

Specifically, when it comes to the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea, along a Northern Limit Line that North Korea refuses to recognize, "our patrol operations have difficulties", said the official. "We are considering extending our patrolling capabilities".

As for how the South would respond in another episode, he said "the military prepares so we can launch an attack immediately" with options ranging from "exploding a [North Korean] missile base to attacking a ship in the Yellow Sea".

On that basis, more clashes in the Yellow Sea appear inevitable. The waters have already been bloodied in three episodes, first in June 1999 when a North Korean boat was sunk, probably with about 40 sailors on board, then in June 2002 when six South Korean sailors were killed in a patrol boat that sunk while under tow back to port, and again last November when a South Korean corvette sent a North Korean vessel back to port in flames, killing an unknown number of North Korean sailors.

It's widely believed in Seoul that a top North Korean official, presumably with Kim Jong-Il's approval, decided to torpedo the Cheonan in response to the November incident. The South Korean military official, however, saw the Cheonan incident as almost a blessing in disguise.

"The sinking of the Cheonan gave us a lesson that we need to overhaul and review, and we are doing that," he said. "We see the Cheonan incident as an opportunity to revamp the overall system." The incident, moreover, may provide yet another dividend for the South Korean military — delay of the controversial plan to transfer command over armed forces in Korea from the Americans to the South Koreans in case of war.,

The South Koreans have been in command of their own forces for a number of years, but they do not think they can possibly meet the deadline of April 17, 2012, set by the U.S. for what's known as "OPCON" — Operational Control.

"The U.S. and Korea agree the time for OPCON should be extended," said the military official, even though "the Pentagon is sticking to the original decision".

Yes, "OPCON should be transferred to Korea because Korea is a sovereign nation," he said, but first "it's necessary to procure state-of-the-art weapons, and we also need to be prepared for asymmetrical and conventional weapons".

With China presumably promising Kim Jong-Il untold economic aid, plus spare parts and other military hardware, the conclusion seems obvious: the potential for a second Korean war rises while the major powers on either side of the divide stoke up the powder keg.

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