By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 29, 2009
TOKYO, May 29 -- The joint command for South Korean and U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula raised its alert level Thursday in response to an extraordinary week of truculence from North Korea.
At the United Nations, the Security Council's five major powers, along with Japan and South Korea, began negotiations on a draft resolution that would condemn North Korea's latest underground nuclear test as "a flagrant violation" of U.N. resolutions prohibiting the communist state from developing nuclear weapons.
The U.S.-backed draft demands that North Korea not conduct any more nuclear tests, cease any advances in its ballistic missile program and allow the return of international nuclear inspectors to monitor Pyongyang's nuclear activities.
The confidential draft does not detail specific penalties for failure to comply. But it commits the Security Council to craft a sanctions resolution that would not impose hardships on North Korean civilians, and it urges North Korea to resume stalled talks with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
In the past week, North Korea has defied U.N. resolutions by conducting an underground nuclear test and launched five short-range missiles into the sea. It has also threatened a "merciless" attack against the South and nullified the truce that ended the Korean War.
South Korean and U.S. forces raised their alert Thursday to the second-highest level, "Watch Condition II." With 655,000 troops from the South and 28,500 troops from the United States, the joint command last raised its alert to this level in 2006, after North Korea's first nuclear test.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said Friday in Guam that he saw no troop movements in North Korea that would cause a need for more U.S. troops in South Korea. "I am not aware of any military moves in the North that are out of the ordinary, at least," Gates told reporters while traveling to a regional security meeting in Singapore. "I don't think there is a need for us to reinforce our military presence in the South."
However, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said, "Surveillance over the North will be stepped up, with more aircraft and personnel mobilized."
South Korea is preparing for possible missile or artillery strikes near a disputed sea border off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula, the Seoul-based daily Chosun Ilbo reported. The North said this week it would no longer respect that border, which has been the site of two naval skirmishes in the past decade.
North Korea is unique among the world's nations in that it periodically threatens its neighbors with nuclear weapons and missiles, but also relies on them and the United States for food to help feed its 23 million people. On average, the country needs about 1 million tons of imported food a year.
The communist economy collapsed in the mid-1990s, and since then North Korea has grown increasingly dependent on generating hard currency through the sale of missiles, missile parts and related technologies to countries in East Asia and the Middle East. The North is believed to have sold missiles to Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, earning hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.
A threat from South Korea this week to constrict or shut off that revenue stream may be the motivating force behind the North's tirade on Wednesday, when it declared that those who "provoke" North Korea "will not be able to escape its unimaginable and merciless punishment."
To that end, Pyongyang vowed to attack South Korea if ships from the North are searched as part of a U.S.-led effort to stop and inspect vessels suspected of carrying missiles or weapons of mass destruction. The interdiction effort, called the Proliferation Security Initiative, was created in 2003 by President George W. Bush.
The United States had been urging South Korea to join for years, but officials in Seoul had resisted until Monday's nuclear test. The South's decision was probably made easier by the protest that followed the underground blast, with the North's longtime allies, China and Russia, joining in the condemnation.
The anti-proliferation program would not block North Korean ships from moving through South Korean waters, officials said in Seoul. Ships would be stopped and searched only if intelligence suggested they might be carrying missiles or nuclear weapons technology, they added.
Investors in South Korea, who have been spooked all week by North Korea's behavior, seemed to calm down Thursday, a day that produced no detonations, missile launches or rhetorical thunder in the North. South Korea's currency, the won, rose to a three-week high. The stock market bounced back from three days of losses.
No polls have been taken in South Korea this week to assess attitudes about North Korea's threats. President Lee Myung-bak is projecting calm, saying Thursday that "it is necessary to publicize locally and overseas that we have everything under control."
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.