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As NK continues to raise tensions, Seoul vows to honor agreements

Experts say NK likely to put threats into action

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)

South Korea on Sunday vowed to honor reconciliatory inter-Korean agreements and called on the North to do likewise, while reiterating a staunch military readiness against any potential provocation by Pyongyang.

Seoul’s top security advisers, led by Chung Eui-yong, chief of the National Security Office, reviewed the recent flare-up in tensions on the peninsula, following the North’s threats to sever ties with the South and even use military force.

“National Security Council members met together to assess the latest situation unfolding in the peninsula and to choose steps accordingly,” Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kang Min-seok said Sunday.

Seoul’s Unification and Defense ministries separately released statements, saying they were taking the situation seriously and that Seoul and Pyongyang should uphold inter-Korean agreements, with the Defense Ministry ensuring the military’s combat readiness.

The flurry of responses from the South came shortly after the North further ratcheted up tensions late on Saturday, over anti-Pyongyang leaflet launches defectors organized in Seoul, warning of military action.

The US State Department, when asked by Yonhap News Agency for a reaction on Pyongyang’s threat of aggression, said it was “disappointed,” urging the communist regime to avoid provocation and return to the nuclear talks.

Local experts said the North will likely proceed to shut down the liaison office, as it said earlier, and attempt to nullify the 2018 inter-Korean military accord with fresh military provocations.

“The provocation would most likely involve artillery rounds near a disputed maritime border with Seoul in the West Sea,” said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

The North, however, will not go as far as launching a direct confrontation with the South, because that would call for an action-for-action response, which Pyongyang knows works to its disadvantage, Shin added.

Staging such aggression there repeatedly would open the way to scrapping the military pact the Koreas reached at their third summit in 2018, according to Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Both Shin and Choi agreed Pyongyang could at any time test-fire short-range missiles, but noted missiles largely serve to draw Washington’s attention rather than Seoul’s.

“North Korea has already made it clear it will confront the US soon, so test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile or submarine-launched ballistic missile is not off the table,” Shin said.

But those missiles would see the light of the day at least after August, when Seoul and Washington regularly hold joint drills, or October when the North celebrates the anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.

“A successful SLBM hinges on a submarine capable of launching the missile, and Pyongyang has yet to roll out such a vessel. … September would be as early as it gets if the North had to show off the missile,” Choi said.

The North ramped up tensions despite the South’s earlier backing down on the contentious anti-Pyongyang leaflet issues, which Seoul declared a “violation of law” and pressed criminal charges for the first time against the activity in place since at least 2004.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a pro-engagement leader seeking breakthroughs to improve the fraying inter-Korean ties, is now left with little policymaking latitude, according to Choi.

“The government is well past the point where it could resurrect the rapprochement effort. Moon has no choice but to harden his stance and seek action-for-action commitment,” Choi said.

“The Moon government can restore military exercises to pre-Singapore levels,” said Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Pyongyang said Seoul should pay the price for the “filth” flown there, referring to the anti-Kim leaflets.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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