Q+A: How serious is the situation on the Korea peninsula?

By Jeremy Laurence

SEOUL (BestGrowthStock) – North Korea has placed surface-to-surface missiles on launch pads in the Yellow Sea, media reported Sunday, as the United States and South Korea began military drills and China called for talks.

HOW SERIOUS HAS THE SITUATION BECOME?

Tensions between the two Koreas have risen to their highest level in at least two decades, but at street level, South Koreans have become largely inured to the war of words. They are again mostly shrugging off the latest confrontation.

Sunday, in the capital Seoul, shopping districts were packed and cafes and restaurants were doing brisk trade, despite the freezing temperatures. Still, the talk was all about North Korea.

At the government level, the situation has become serious enough to warrant regional powers to send diplomats to a flurry of meetings. However, it has not escalated to the point of where the world’s leaders are in regular contact. For instance, U.S. President Barack Obama didn’t see any urgency to contact his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, saying only they would talk in a few days.

WHAT IS DIFFERENT NOW, COMPARED TO PREVIOUS CONFRONTATIONS?

Tensions are higher now than when a South Korean warship was sunk in March, killing 46 sailors. Then, it took weeks before Seoul pointed the finger of blame at the North, which has repeatedly denied responsibility.

Tensions are higher this time for the simple reason that Tuesday’s attack was clearly carried out by Pyongyang, and more importantly, civilians were killed. South Koreans were genuinely shocked when they saw civilian houses burning. This was the first time civilians on South Korean territory had come under direct North Korean attack since the 1950-53 Korean war.

A day after the attack, it was revealed two civilians had been killed and video footage of the shelled homes provoked outrage — against the North, and against the government for not hitting back with at least the same ferocity.

WHAT COULD PUSH THE SITUATION TO ESCALATE FURTHER?

Military drills off the west coast have been a sensitive issue for years, because they are held in the vicinity of a disputed maritime border. Pyongyang says the current Northern Limit Line (NLL) border was drawn up without its consultation, and it believes the boundary should be further south.

The South’s joint drill with the United States, involving the ultimate show of force, an aircraft carrier, is meant to intimidate the North and underline the disparity between the two sides’ militaries.

Pyongyang, which customarily fires off war-like rhetoric at the time of exercises in the area, has again vowed tough retaliation if its territory is violated.

Last Tuesday, it issued a similar warning at the time of an exercise by the South in the area, hours before firing a barrage of shells at Yeonpyeong island. It is reasonable to believe it could do the same again. The difference this time is that South Korea — now it has had time to digest last week’s attack and been criticized for responding too weakly — will hit back harder.

IF THE SITUATION ESCALATES, WHAT COULD HAPPEN?

If either side pushes the other too hard, there is a chance of military skirmishes off the west coast, and more artillery fire. Any exchange will most likely be contained in the West Sea area.

Exchanges of fire in the area are not uncommon. There have been a number of naval fights in the area, with many lives being lost in skirmishes in 1999, 2002 and at the end of last year. Vessels have been severely damaged and even sunk, as in the case of the South’s Cheonan corvette in March this year.

Islanders living in the area have grown accustomed to the sound of artillery fire, with the North Koreans regularly testing their equipment. One would expect that to continue. But if any shells land in South Korean territory, one would expect South Korean forces to retaliate at least in kind.

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF AN ALL-OUT WAR?

Slim. But a miscalculation in firing, or a unilateral act by a rogue North Korean general, could spark a more serious exchange.

Even though the North has nearly twice as many “boots on the ground,” the U.S.-South Korean forces are far ahead technologically and would easily win any war.

Neither side stands to gain. The capitalist South is acutely aware of the cost a war would have on its vibrant economy, the region’s fourth biggest. The impoverished North has barely enough cash and resources to feed its people, let alone sustain a prolonged military campaign. Moreover, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il does not dare face the ignominy of serious battlefield damage, which could jeopardize the transition process to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un.

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Andrew Marshall)

Q+A: How serious is the situation on the Korea peninsula?