Q+A: Is North Korea going to strike again?

By Phil Stewart

SEOUL (BestGrowthStock) – U.S. and South Korean officials fear that North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean warship may herald future attacks, and this week announced new sanctions and military drills meant to pressure Pyongyang.

Following are some questions and answers about North Korea’s potential motives, their past aggressions and U.S. and South Korean plans to deter North Korea from provocations that could destabilise the peninsula.

North Korea denies responsibility for the March torpedo attack, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.

WHY WOULD NORTH KOREA SEEK TO ATTACK THE SOUTH?

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Seoul on Wednesday, linked the potential provocations to preparations within North Korea to select a successor to replace leader Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-il’s youngest son is believed to be in training to take over from his father, who by all appearances is firmly in charge of the reclusive state but is clearly in failing health. Analysts say that bellicose actions by the North could be used to unify support behind the Kim dynasty.

“There has been some indication over the last number of months that as the succession process gets under way in the North that there might be provocations, particularly since the sinking of the Cheonan,” Gates said.

At the same time, Gates said there was “certainly no certainty” that there would be further provocations.

“I think it’s something that we have to look at very closely, we have to keep it in mind and be very vigilant.”

WOULD THIS BE A DEPARTURE FROM PAST Behavior?

Not necessarily. President Barack Obama’s pick to be the new U.S. intelligence chief told Congress this week that the sinking of the Cheonan was a reminder of more violent times in the past — and suggested they may return.

Retired General James Clapper was a top U.S. defense official dealing with North-South tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the 1980s, at a time when he said violent provocations were more common than during the last decade.

He said the Cheonan attack and Pyongyang’s unsuccessful efforts to assassinate a senior North Korean defector reminded him of its bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987 in which all 115 passengers were killed.

“The most important lesson for all of us in the intelligence community from this year’s provocations by Pyongyang is to realize that we may be entering a dangerous new period when North Korea will once again attempt to advance its internal and external political goals through direct attacks on our allies in the Republic of Korea,” Clapper said in a written response to questions from a Senate committee.

CAN THE U.S. AND SOUTH KOREA DETER THE NORTH?

That’s unclear. The United States and South Korea announced on Tuesday a series of joint air and sea military exercises, starting with large-scale drills in the Sea of Japan on July 25. The show of force is meant to be a deterrent.

Admiral Robert Willard, who as head of U.S. Pacific Command oversees U.S. military activities in the region, noted that exercises have been used sparingly as a response to actions by the North. Critics have said they can raise tensions.

“If we go back in history and look at other provocations that have occurred by North Korea directly toward the South, very often there has not been a military response like this show-of-force series that has been conducted,” he said.

“So we fully expect that this will send a strong signal to Pyongyang and to Kim Jong-il regarding the provocation that Cheonan represented.”

But defense and intelligence officials also acknowledge they have limited options to get Pyongyang to change course, including sanctions like the ones announced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday.

Gates on Tuesday said North Korea was already “about as isolated as a country can get in terms of the number of U.N. sanctions that have been voted against them.”

“I think this is an ongoing challenge that has to be managed over a period of years and I think that the pressures continue slowly to build on the North,” Gates said.

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(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Q+A: Is North Korea going to strike again?