(New York Times)
YEONPYEONG ISLAND, South Korea — Choi Cheol-yeong vividly recalls the shock and fear that he felt during North Korea’s lethal bombardment of this small island, and says his nerves remain on edge because he thinks another attack will come, possibly during South Korean artillery drills this week.
“I have a bad feeling that something might happen, but we’re ready if it does,” said Mr. Choi, a town official here, pointing to a filing cabinet near his desk, where he keeps a gas mask.
Two weeks after a North Korean artillery barrage shattered the tiny fishing community on Yeonpyeong Island, and raised fears across South Korea about its heavily armed neighbor, many South Koreans are convinced that the North will strike again, and a parlor game of sorts has developed around the question of where.
South Korean and foreign political analysts say the North is growing more desperate, facing food shortages in the winter and at the same time trying to secure the succession of the youngest son of North Korea’s ailing dictator, Kim Jong-il. In that situation, experts say, the government typically resorts to hostile and provocative military actions as the preferred way to pressure the economically wealthier and thus more vulnerable South into giving the aid and investment that North Korea needs to survive.
“The past pattern shows that North Korea will strike in some unimaginable way,” said Kim Jong-ha, a professor of defense and security studies at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. “It may not come for a few months, but we must be ready or the shock and awe will be so great.”
The question of another attack has taken on added significance after the bombardment here and the sinking in March of the South Korean warship Cheonan, apparently by a North Korean torpedo, exposed unexpected weaknesses in South Korea’s technologically superior military. Stung by criticism of the military’s anemic response, South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, replaced his defense minister with a retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Kim Kwan-jin, who immediately vowed to strengthen South Korea’s forces and respond more robustly to future attacks by the North.
“There is a possibility that they will attack again in an unexpected way,” Mr. Kim said Dec. 3 at a nomination hearing at the National Assembly, South Korea’s Parliament. “I believe our entire country is a possible target for provocations.”
Military analysts are divided on what to expect next. But they agree that North Korea is adept at searching out and exploiting weak points in South Korea’s better financed and provisioned forces. In the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, for example, defenses designed to repel a seaborne invasion were virtually useless in responding to a limited artillery attack, analysts said.
“South Korea got sucker-punched on Yeonpyeong,” said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst on North Korea for the International Crisis Group. “North Korea is always looking for weakness, and doesn’t attack force on force.”
It is impossible to predict where North Korea will attack next, if it does at all. But analysts pointed to several possibilities:
The Yellow Sea. Yeonpyeong is one of five islands surrounded by waters that are claimed by both Koreas and have been the most common points of contention in recent years. North Korea’s options here range from another artillery or rocket barrage to a limited ground strike by commandos.
The North might also choose another naval target, like one of the warships or floating bases that the South maintains in these waters. Analysts point to the Cheonan as a classic case of North Korea’s probing for weak points: while the South has been building stronger and faster warships than the North, it apparently neglected to consider the possibility of a submarine attack.
Some analysts say the North does have legitimate grievances in its maritime border dispute with the South in the Yellow Sea. Others say it is using that dispute to give its provocations a fig leaf of legitimacy to avoid angering China, its only ally. They say China might view any additional attack as an affront to its current diplomatic initiatives to convene emergency talks between the North and other nations.
The DMZ. There has been fearful speculation in the South Korean news media that North Korea may strike somewhere along the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, the heavily fortified border that has divided the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War. One theory is that the North may mount a limited artillery attack across the border in Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul, South Korea’s political and financial heart.
The attack would be aimed at rattling the South’s nerves and sapping its will to fight, analysts say, rather than trying to inflict maximum damage on civilians. Even a small attack might be enough to cause a financial panic, they say, battering South Korea’s stock market and scaring away foreign investors.
A terrorist strike. The next blow may come in the form of so-called asymmetrical attacks, which would sidestep the South’s military advantages with strikes by the North’s 180,000 or so special forces troops on soft targets in civilian areas.
This could be a bomb on a subway or train, or a cyberattack on a South Korean bank or computer network. Analysts say there are signs that the North may be developing capability in information technology, at a time when South Korean security agencies have increasingly accused North Korean agents of using the Internet to spread propaganda in the South, one of the world’s most wired societies.
A nuclear or missile test. At least one security expert, Baek Seung-joo, of the government-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said he expected North Korea’s next provocation to be less deadly, perhaps another nuclear or long-range-missile test. He said such strategic brinkmanship would be aimed at pressing not only the South into new talks on dismantling the North’s weapons programs in exchange for food aid, but also the United States into talks on security guarantees for the Kim family government.
For now, the South Korean military is focusing most of its attention on fortifying Yeonpyeong and the other four Yellow Sea islands, having been stung by public criticism of its apparently poor showing two weeks ago. The island’s defenders fired back less than half the 170 rounds or more fired by North Korea, and satellite photographs appeared to show that many of their shots seemed to be off target, falling harmlessly in farmers’ fields.
“The North Korean military has been regarded as a paper tiger because of fuel and supply shortages,” said Kazuhisa Ogawa, a Tokyo-based military analyst, “but South Korea’s military also revealed that it was not ready.”
On Yeonpyeong Island, Mr. Choi, the town official, said the town hall was now staffed 24 hours, ready to hurry the small number of remaining residents into shelters should another attack occur.
“We don’t get much sleep,” he said, “but they won’t catch us off guard again.”