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Scenarios: What happens next on the Korean peninsula

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea conducted a military drill from a disputed island off the west coast of the divided peninsula on Monday, firing a range of weaponry in the face of North Korean threats of retaliation.

But the North’s military later said it was not worth reacting to the drill, saying “the world should properly know who is the true champion of peace.

On November 23, the last time Seoul conducted firing drills from Yeonpyeong, close to a disputed maritime, Pyongyang retaliated by shelling the island, killing four people, in the worst attack on South Korean territory since the Korean war ended in 1953.

What could happen next?


The North typically carries out aggressive actions to push South Korea and the United States to the negotiating table where they expect to win concessions in return for promises of “best” behavior. At the same time, militaristic acts serve to bolster Kim family rule as ailing leader Kim Jong-il attempts to groom his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, into an iron ruler.

Most analysts say the North is unlikely to undertake another bold act of aggression like this year’s deadly attacks on the Cheonan warship and the Yeonpyeong shelling, at least in the near-term.

Its most likely next move will be to conduct live-fire artillery drills or possibly a short-range missile test into its waters off the west coast. The contested Northern Limit Line (NLL), drawn up by the U.S.-led United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War without the North’s consent, is the main flashpoint. There have been several naval clashes over the past decade, with many lives lost and ships sunk there. Pyongyang’s claims over the area have become more pronounced this year. Expect more violence in the area, including naval skirmishes.

Other possible North Korean actions over the next few months include conducting long-range missile tests, and a third nuclear test. If the South resumes anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts from the border, it could shoot down the loudspeakers.

Moreover, 2010’s incidents show the North is prepared to carry out more overt acts of aggression and analysts agree that the overall threat-level has risen.

For now, the North will likely wait to see if its latest actions yield results, such as a return to international talks, before making another aggressive move. It will also be wary of any response by the South, where the public is calling for tougher retaliation.


The South’s military drill on Monday was routine, and similar exercises have been carried out monthly for years. Seoul argues this is a sovereign right, and that they will continue.

Additionally, the South conducts regular joint military drills with the United States. The sinking of the Cheonan coupled with the Yeonpyeong shelling mean that the allies will conduct even more show-of-force drills. These will likely take place off the west coast, some 150 km (90 miles) south of the NLL, and could again involve a U.S. aircraft carrier group.

Exercises near the NLL are particularly sensitive, and if a stray round lands in disputed waters it could spark a clash.

Pyongyang regards military exercises by South Korea and the United States with genuine unease, fearing the maneuvers could be a smokescreen for a real attack.

The South could up the ante in anti-Pyongyang propaganda. It could resume broadcasting messages through speakers at the border, stopped six years ago, and send leaflets into the North denouncing its leadership.

The South has also vowed to forcefully retaliate against the North if attacks such as those on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong occur again. They have changed their rules of combat, permitting the military to hit back hard in self-defense. Previously, the South’s retaliation had been restricted due to U.N. restrictions in force since the armistice in 1953.


This is unlikely, but analysts have expressed serious concerns at how the situation has escalated this year. They worry that a miscalculation or a stray test firing could ignite a tit-for-tat exchange which could quickly spiral out of control.

But an all-out war is a lose-lose scenario for both sides.

North Korea will be aware of its limitations and is unlikely to want to provoke a dangerous escalation. The combined high-tech militaries of South Korea and the United States would overwhelm the North, but it could be a Pyrrhic victory for the market-oriented South, which would be faced with both the heavy costs of war and of reunification with its destitute neighbor.


For now, the outlook for talks involving all sides is bleak. On Monday, the U.N. Security Council could not even agree on a statement meant to cool tensions on the peninsula. China and Russia are pushing for a statement that won’t blame North Korea for the crisis, but will call on both sides to exercise restraint. The United States, Britain, France, Japan and South Korea want a statement blaming the crisis on North Korea and condemning it for last month’s shelling incident.

Separately, Beijing and Russia have called for an emergency meeting of regional powers to talk about the situation. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul are uneasy about the proposal as they don’t want to be seen to be rewarding Pyongyang for what they see as its reckless actions, by agreeing to hold talks.

All sides say they want a resumption of stalled six-party talks, but have widely differing starting points. China sees the forum as the best place to begin dialogue. South Korea, the United States and Japan say they will only return once they have proof that Pyongyang is committed to denuclearize. The North wants to be recognized as a nuclear power. Six-party talks, in their present form, are still a long way off.

Editing by Alex Richardson