Seoul 'Blew Chance to Stop N.Korean Provocations'

      December 07, 2010 12:23

      Military experts say South Korea missed a chance to break the vicious cycle of ever bolder North Korean provocations and meek responses from the South. They say it is a pity South Korea's F-15K fighter jets took no action after they were scrambled in response to the North Korean artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23.

      Kim Hee-sang, a retired Army lieutenant general and chief of the Korea Institute for National Security Affairs, said, "At the time, the North's MiG-23 fighters took off, but they are no match for F-15Ks. If an aerial dogfight had broken out, the North would have suffered a crushing defeat and we could have delivered a clear message that they must pay the price for a provocation."

      Some people are worried that an all-out war might break out. But the North is as afraid of a full war as we are," he added. Kim was presidential secretary for defense affairs in the Roh Tae-woo government and defense adviser to president Roh Moo-hyun.

      The military gave up on ordering the fighters to strafe North Korean artillery positions due to the UN Command-set rules of engagement stipulating that a response to an attack should be carried out with "equivalent" weapons. But many suspect the real reason was that top military brass got cold feet.

      Experts cite historical examples to stress that fear of escalation would only help escalate a war. "We have no choice but to keep suffering if we're worried about escalation whenever the North ratchets up the level of provocation," said a researcher at a government-funded think tank on condition of anonymity. "What would we do if the North fires one or two shells from a long-range howitzer at Seoul and says that it fired them by accident?"

      National Assembly Speaker Park Hee-tae (center) and lawmakers on the Defense Committee are briefed at an Army unit in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province on Monday.

      Instead experts are stressing the need to break the vicious cycle of North Korean provocations and South Korean warnings that prove empty words, which in turn encourages the North to raise the ante.

      In May, when it was confirmed that the Navy corvette Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack in March, the government pledged to immediately resume psychological warfare against the North by restarting propaganda broadcasts and sending propaganda leaflets.

      But it kept delaying the broadcasts along the demarcation line after the North threatened to fire at the loudspeakers. In a climb-down, the government then made a fresh pledge to resume propaganda broadcasts if the North provokes again.

      The military had also pledged to fire back across the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border, if the North fires shells across. But when the North lobbed shells into waters south of the NLL in the direction of Baeknyeong Island for the first time in August, the South did not keep its word, encouraging the Nov. 23 attack on South Korean territory.

      Moon Sung-mook, a former deputy director of arms control at the Defense Ministry, said, "The North is always aiming for our weak spot, so it's difficult to speculate what bargaining chip it will use next." He also said it is a pity the South missed the opportunity to punish the North all for its latest provocation. "The North fired shells indiscriminately at innocent civilians on Yeonpyeong Island. If we'd retaliated immediately after we were attacked, nobody in the international community would have found fault with us and we could have made the North give up thinking of launching any more provocations."

      Some experts are calling for an overhaul of military rules so field commanders are allowed to make their own judgment and respond immediately to any obvious provocation by the North instead of waiting for Cheong Wa Dae's political decision. They also urged the government to work out a strong response policy.

      "It can sometimes happen that presidential instructions conflict with a field commander's judgment," said Yoon Yeon, a former commander of Naval Operations. "But the commanding officers should exercise their rights guaranteed by the rules of engagement and operations manuals." He added occasional war games are needed to prevent the president and military leaders from coming into conflict or misunderstanding each other.

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