Military Offensive Against North Korea Unlikely

Tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula following Seoul's charge that North Korea sank one of its warships, killing 46 crewmen. South Korea's president said his country is stopping nearly all trade with the North — a move the U.S. supports. Despite the heated rhetoric, all sides know that a military response would be devastating to the region.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to hear more now on the trouble between the Koreas. The North and the South have had plenty of tense moments over the years, but this appears to be the most serious episode since the end of the Cold War. As weve just heard, theres a real possibility the tensions could continue to escalate. South Korea has few options for punishing North Korea for the sinking of a warship, and a war between the Koreas would be disastrous for the region.

NPR foreign affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has this report.

JACKIE NORTHAM: As worse case scenarios go, the situation on the Korean Peninsula hits the gold standard. A nuclear armed North Korea, led by an erratic and ailing Kim Jong-Il, launched an attack on a South Korean warship two months ago, killing 46 crewmen and raising tensions in the region to their highest peak in years. The real challenge for South Korea, its neighbors and the U.S., is how to punish North Korea without sparking chaos in the region.

Michael Green, a senior adviser on Asia policy in the Bush administration says its unlikely South Korea would launch a military offensive against the North. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is within range of the demilitarize zone. Green says North Korea has thousands of weapons pointing at Seoul.

Dr. MICHAEL GREEN (Georgetown University): You can imagine what it would be like in Washington, D.C. or in New York if, you know, just out at JFK Airport or Dulles Airport you had Kim Jong-il's artillery that close to your capital or to your major industrial and economic center.

NORTHAM: Green says any military action by North Korea would be short and bloody and spell the end of Kim Jong-il's regime. Still, that doesn't mean it's out of the question, says Selig Harrison, who has traveled to North Korea nearly a dozen times and is with the Center for International Policy. Harrison says the North Korean leader's grip on the military is not as firm as it once was.

Mr. SELIG HARRISON (Center for International Policy): A young hawkish group is - in the armed forces - is stronger than it's ever been in North Korea, and many of the older heads in North Korea have been quite concerned for some time about what they think is an unrealistic bravado on the part of some of these younger officers.

NORTHAM: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is already taking a risk of North Korean retaliation by severing nearly all trade ties with the North and barring its ships from South Korean sea lanes, all of which will have a severe economic impact on the North. He's also trying to toughen U.N. sanctions against North Korea. Paul Stares, a Korean expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, says that will only work if China is on board.

Mr. PAUL STARES (Council on Foreign Relations): There's just a real reluctance on the part of China to - who has veto power - to exert anymore pressure on the North for fear of it precipitating a collapse of North Korea and bringing about internal instability.

NORTHAM: China has concerns it would be inundated by North Korean refugees if the Pyongyang Regime collapses, and that there would be a power vacuum in North Korea that would be filled by U.S. and South Korean forces. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed China to reign in North Korea. Stares says the U.S. also needs to keep Seoul from increasing tensions with the north.

Mr. STARES: At the same time it expresses its support for South Korea, it also has to make clear that there are real limits to what it can do, all the real risks entailed in going up the escalatory ladder here.

NORTHAM: But yesterday the Pentagon announced plans for a joint U.S./South Korean anti-submarine drill in, quote, "the near future." And Pentagon officials said talks were underway on joint maritime interdiction exercises. Selig Harrison says the U.S. should refrain from joint naval exercises at this moment.

Mr. HARRISON: This would be a great mistake and it would viewed as very provocative by North Korea and they would look for ways to respond.

NORTHAM: Harrison says North Korea has become obsessed with the possibility of being overrun by South Korea since President Lee took office in Seoul. Lee has taken a much tougher stand against the North than his predecessors. He's insisting Pyongyang stop provocative acts if it wants aid and support from Seoul. Harrison suggests if the South reversed those policies, the North would take a less belligerent stand. But Michael Green says North Korea constantly challenges and goes right up to the line to get what it wants.

Mr. GREEN: This time the South Korean government has announced it's going to take some stern measures against the North, and we'll see now whether the North backs off as it sometimes does or whether it again tries to raise the stakes in an effort to intimidate the South and other powers into backing away from confrontation and making concessions.

NORTHAM: Secretary Clinton is due to visit South Korea Wednesday.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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