Tensions high in Koreas, but all-out war unlikely

By Kelly Olsen

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 8 2010 9:41 p.m. MST

South Korean conservative activists burn a North Korean flag with portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his youngest son Kim Jong Un during a rally denouncing North Korea's Nov. 23 bombardment on a South Korean border island, in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010.

Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — Two weeks after North Korea shelled a South Korean island, the rivals are still trading threats. Tensions remain at their highest in more than a decade, and though neither side is backing down, all-out war is unlikely.

Spooked by the assault that killed four people, South Korea threatened airstrikes if hit again, ordered more troops on front-line islands and revamped rules of engagement to allow for a more forceful response to future provocations.

And on Wednesday, the top American military officer stood by his South Korean counterpart's side in Seoul pledging "unquestioned" support for the ally. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointedly warned Pyongyang to stop its "belligerent, reckless behavior" even as the North continued live-fire drills from its shores.

On a peninsula still technically at war and divided by only a narrow no-go zone where hundreds of thousands of troops stand ready, there are fears that even a small spark could re-ignite the war the Koreas closed with only a truce in 1953.

Their navies spar from time to time along their maritime border, a line the North Koreans dispute. But the Nov. 23 shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong was the first to target a civilian area. Two construction workers and two marines were killed.

North Korea expressed regret for the civilian deaths but claimed the South Korean military used the residents as "human shields" after Pyongyang warned the South to call off naval artillery drills carried out in the hours before the attack.

On Thursday, the North heaped new blame on the South, saying the Yeonpyeong shelling was the result of "a deliberate provocation of the puppet forces," a common phrasing in its state media.

Amid the heightened tensions, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will visit North Korea next week. Richardson, who has visited the country on numerous occasions, was invited by Kim Gye Gwan, who has served as North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, according to a spokesman for the governor, Gilbert Gallegos. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Richardson will not carry any message from the U.S. government.

In the days since the attack, both militaries have continued to conduct live-fire shooting exercises that have kept the region on edge.

"The fact that both North and South are having to prove themselves militarily and conduct live-fire tests very close to each other's borders just increases the likelihood that there could be an errant shell or just a war of nerves that could lead to crossing the line once again," said Peter Beck, a research fellow at Keio University in Tokyo. "Now that the North has done it once, it's not going to surprise me if they do it again."

Still, the doomsday scenario of war across the world's most militarized border seems unlikely.

South Korea's moves to bolster its military readiness and respond more forcefully since the attack reduce the risk of the outbreak of a full-fledged war, said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank.

North Korea, he said, knows that "further provocation will come at a cost."

The North has often tried to be provocative enough to be able to extract what it needs from the South and the rest of the world.

Since 2003, Pyongyang had been engaged in negotiations with five other nations to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil and other concessions.

After backing out of nuclear talks last year, North Korea — struggling to feed its people and slapped with sanctions — has been looking for a way back to the negotiating table. Seoul and Washington, however, say giving in to Pyongyang would only reward bad behavior and have resisted restarting the talks.

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