Seoul must know when to draw the line
The US and South Korea face an imminent problem to which they do not seem to have found an answer: at what point do they escalate from rhetoric and war games to serious reprisals? No one doubts South Korea has to take overdue defensive measures. The hard part, though, is knowing when, for instance, to send South Korean fighter planes against targets in the North.
South Korean planes are now only armed for air-to-air combat against North Korean planes intruding into South Korean air space. South Korea's new defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, has said aircraft will be ordered to attack the sources of fire the next time the North Koreans stage a shock attack, but it's far from clear when to carry out such a threat.
What, exactly, is the way to respond if the North Koreans fire a few shells and hit no one - or if they inflict casualties and damage far from population centres? For that matter, what if they stage a gunfight in a remote region along the demilitarised zone? Would renewal of those exchanges of fire in lightly populated, hilly regions - scenes of some of the bloodiest battles of the Korean war - trigger more than perfunctory counter-fire?
The sense, from listening to American and South Korean military people, is that no one knows what to do. It's unlikely that the North would be so foolish as to go to 'all-out war', one of the oft-used phrases from Pyongyang. The real danger now is that of isolated quick hits. That's where the politicians and military people do not have the answers.
US President Barack Obama ordered the aircraft carrier George Washington to lead a US strike force into war games with South Korean ships in the Yellow Sea. That was a significant move, symbolically and practically.
Still, the overriding question remains: how often does North Korea have to prick the hide of the South before Seoul acts forcefully? The initial response to asymmetric warfare need not be to send the George Washington to the rescue. Before that happens, South Korean artillery and fighter aircraft have to pound supply points, gun positions and harbours identified as targets in the North. If a North Korean vessel fires on a South Korean naval or land target, the answer may be not only to sink the attacker but also to bomb and strafe the naval base that harboured the vessel.
Politicians cringe at the risks. Might North Korea then turn its artillery and missiles on the Seoul-Incheon complex? Would North Koreans fire at less-populated centres, or attack a South Korean guard post south of the line? How should the South Koreans respond then, and when would their American ally join the fray?
The answer is that the Americans and South Koreans have to set a red line beyond which they will not let the North Koreans get away in sneering triumph after more surprises. The existence of the North's ultimate club - its nuclear stockpile - should hardly keep US and South Korean forces from fighting back after 'incidents' that will go on and on, in more terrible form, unless answered with more than rhetoric and war games.
Journalist Donald Kirk is the author, most recently, of Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine