By CHOE SANG-HUN, The New York Times, May 27, 2009
SEOUL, South Korea — One day after North Korea warned of a possible attack against the South, the United States and South Korea ordered their forces here to their highest alert for three years, increasing surveillance flights and satellite reconnaissance to counter what officials termed a “grave threat.”
The move was the latest sign of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test on Monday, sparking a confrontation with South Korea and the international community that has built into ever more bellicose rhetoric. North Korea reinforced its menacing language by test-firing six short-range missiles earlier in the week.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said allied troops, including, 28,000 U.S. soldiers based in South Korea, raised their Watch Condition, or Watchcon, to the second-highest level from Watchcon 3 to Watchcon 2.
South Korea has put its military on such a high level of alert only five times since hostilities in the three-year Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, most recently when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.
The upgraded alert provides for a significant increase in the use of reconnaissance planes and spy satellites, as well as a more vigorous gathering and analysis of electronic signals from the North, ministry officials said.
The Defense Ministry declined to confirm South Korean news reports that its military has moved or planned to move warships and artillery to islands near the western sea border with North Korea. But a South Korean military official said that in recent months, North Korea has increased training exercises among its coastal artillery units opposite the South Korean islands.
The North’s state-controlled media warned on Thursday that “even a minor accidental clash could lead to nuclear war.”
“It’s a matter of time when a fuse for war is triggered,” the North Korean government’s official newspaper, Minju Joseon, said in a commentary carried by the state-run news agency KCNA.
As the South Korean government urged its people to remain calm, there was no sign of anxiety among villagers along the border. In Seoul, with a population of 10.4 million and just 35 miles from the border, preparations continued for the funeral on Friday of former President Roh Moo-hyun who committed suicide last Saturday.
North Korea intensified its threats against South Korea and the United States on Wednesday with warnings of a “powerful military strike” if any North Korean ships were stopped or searched as part of an American-led operation to intercept vessels suspected of carrying unconventional weapons.
South Korea agreed to join the operation after North Korea’s nuclear test on Monday. The North had earlier warned the South not to participate in the operation, known as the Proliferation Security Initiative.
In their Wednesday statement, the North Koreans also said that they “no longer feel bound” by the 1953 armistice. Technically, the two Koreas have remained at war for more than 50 years, because the 1953 armistice was never replaced with a final peace treaty. The North Koreans had previously called the armistice a “useless piece of paper” and declared that they no longer felt bound by it. Washington and Seoul consider such North Korean statements a gambit to raise tension and draw the United States to bilateral talks.
In Washington, Secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “North Korea continues to act in a provocative and belligerent manner toward its neighbors.”
“There are consequences to such actions,” she said, adding that discussions were under way at the United Nations “to add to the consequences North Korea will face.”
Diplomats said American and Japanese officials were drafting a Security Council resolution that would concentrate on five or six ways to flesh out existing sanctions against North Korea that had never been enforced. Although China supports the idea of sanctions, it wants to work slowly and to bolster measures first passed in 2006 rather than creating new ones, they said.
The proposals include banning imports and exports of all arms — only heavy weapons are restricted now. “We want to dry out their resources for the military,” said a senior Western diplomat, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Since inter-Korean relations began deteriorating a year ago, analysts at government-run and private policy institutes in South Korea have often warned of a possible naval skirmish. In interviews in recent weeks, they have said that if South Korea joined the global interdiction program, the chances of a North Korean provocation would increase.
The analysts said North Korea might stage a limited armed provocation along the disputed western sea border, where the two navies clashed in skirmishes in June 1999 and June 2002 during the crabbing season. Any clash between the Koreas would probably be on a similarly limited scale, the analysts said.
South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, lauded his people on Wednesday for their “mature response” to the North’s behavior. He noted that the North’s nuclear test and its subsequent missile launchings did not affect stock indexes and foreign exchange markets beyond initial jitters.
Seoul, the South Korean capital, with a population of 10.4 million, is just 35 miles from the North Korean border and well within the range of North Korean missiles and artillery. But most South Koreans and foreign investors here are accustomed to threats from the North.
Meanwhile, analysts said, South Korea’s decision to join the antiproliferation initiative — a global effort that seeks to interrupt air and sea deliveries of nuclear and other unconventional weapons, missile parts and delivery systems — is largely symbolic. Seoul has said that it will stop only suspicious ships in its own territorial waters, a sovereign right it already has. In addition, the chance that the North would send ships carrying such materials into South Korean waters is low.
Reporting was contributed by Mark McDonald from Hong Kong, Thom Shanker from Washington, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations. Alan Cowell contributed from Paris.