The latest developments in North Korea since the breakdown of cross-border military talks are anything but comforting. The North Korea has apparently dug a tunnel in Punggye-ri, North Hamgyong Province which was the site of two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 to a depth of 800 m. Another 200 m is all that is needed to conduct a third nuclear test. North Korea has also completed a new missile launch pad in Tongchang-ri in North Pyongyan Province. And in Koampo, South Hwanghae Province, just 50 km to 60 km away from South Korea's five West Sea islands, the North is building a naval base to house around 70 hovercraft.
Until just two weeks ago, North Korea was frantically pushing South Korea to hold military talks, Red Cross meetings and even parliamentary talks. But once the military talks began, the North said it had no idea who or what sank the Navy corvette Cheonan and blamed the South for provoking the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. From the start, it had no intention to resolve tensions but merely sought a chance for direct talks with Washington.
North Korea has a bad habit of turning to the nuclear option if all dialogue channels are closed, and it has launched minor to major provocations every time the U.S. and South Korea hold the "Key Resolve" joint military exercises between February and March each year. It shut off land routes to the Kaesong Industrial Complex in March 2009, test-fired a long-range missile in April and conducted its second nuclear test in May. The Cheonan was attacked during last year's drill.
Pyongyang is probably surprised by the steadfast stance of the South Korean and U.S. governments since the launch of the Lee Myung-bak administration, despite its provocations. As a result, it may well be cooking up a scheme that it hopes will shock Seoul and Washington. In other words, the next provocation could be the worst one so far. Experts speculate North Korea could attempt multiple attacks simultaneously including a nuclear test, a terror attack on a South Korean city and property, and assassination of a South Korean official.
Lee said on Sunday the public "wants the government to pursue a two-track route of responding sternly to provocations while keeping inter-Korean dialogue channels open." But the North must go into talks sincerely. It seems unable to overcome its outmoded strategy of resorting to military force when talks break down. As long as these bad habits linger, there can be no true dialogue between the two Koreas. Seoul needs to prepare thoroughly for North Korean provocations to let the regime know that it will not gain anything from them.