Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Korean Clash Forces the U.S. to Weigh Options

DAVID E. SANGER and MARK McDONALD WASHINGTON — President Obama’s top national security aides met Tuesday to develop a response to North Korea’s deadly shelling of a South Korean military installation as the United States struggled for the second time this year to keep a North Korean provocation from escalating into war. Mr. Obama, who attended the end of the emergency session after a trip to a Chrysler plant, called South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, to express American solidarity and talk about a coordinated response. That response is likely to start with pressing China, which has sought to maintain its influence with the North during what could be a struggle over leadership succession. But as a former national security official who dealt frequently with North Korea in the Bush administration, Victor Cha, said just a few hours before the attack began, North Korea is “the land of lousy options.” Mr. Obama is once again forced to choose between equally unpalatable choices: responding with verbal condemnations and a modest tightening of sanctions, which has done little to halt new attacks, and reacting strongly, which could risk a broad war in which South Korea’s vibrant capital, Seoul, would be the first target. As top American officials gathered in the Situation Room late Tuesday, the South Korean military went into what it termed “crisis status.” President Lee said he would order strikes on a North Korean base if there were indications of new attacks. North Korea’s artillery shells fell on Yeonpyeong Island, a fishing village whose residents fled by ferry to the mainland city of Inchon — where Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed 60 years ago this fall, three months after the outbreak of the Korean War. Today, Inchon is the site of South Korea’s main international airport, symbolizing the vulnerability of one of the world’s most vibrant economies to the artillery of one of the world’s most isolated and poorest nations. A senior American official said that an early American assessment indicated that a total of about 175 artillery shells were fired by the North and by the South in response on Tuesday. But an American official who had looked at satellite images said there was no visible evidence of preparations for a general war. Historically, the North’s attacks have been lightning raids, after which the North Koreans have backed off to watch the world’s reaction. This one came just hours after the South Koreans had completed a long-planned set of military exercises, suggesting that the North Korean attack was “premeditated,” a senior American official said. Television reports showed large plumes of black smoke spiraling from the island, as dozens of houses caught fire. The shelling killed two Marines and wounded 18 people. The South put its fighter planes on alert — but, tellingly, did not put them in the air or strike at the North’s artillery bases. President Obama was awakened at 3:55 a.m. by his new national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, who told him of the attack. Just 11 days before, North Korea had invited a Stanford University nuclear scientist to Yongbyon, its primary nuclear site, and showed him what was described as a just completed centrifuge plant that, if it goes fully operational, should enable North Korea to enrich uranium into nuclear fuel and add to its arsenal of 8 to 12 nuclear weapons. Taken together, the nuclear demonstration and the attack were widely interpreted as an effort to bolster the credentials of Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent as the country’s leader, and the son and grandson of the only two men who have run the country. When his father, Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s ailing leader, was establishing his credentials, the North conducted a similar series of attacks. “They have a 60-year history of military provocations — it’s in their DNA,” said a senior administration official. “What we are trying to do is break the cycle,” a cycle, he said, that has North Korea’s bad behavior rewarded with “talks, inducements and rewards.” He said that the shelling would delay any effort to resume the six-nation talks about the North’s nuclear program. While Mr. Obama was elected on a promise of diplomatic engagement, his strategy toward the North for the past two years, called “strategic patience,” has been to demonstrate that Washington would not engage until the North ceased provocations and demonstrated that it was living up to past commitments to dismantle, and ultimately give up, its nuclear capacity. The provocations have now increased markedly, and it is not clear what new options are available. Beijing’s first reaction on Tuesday was to call for a resumption of the six-nation talks involving North and South Korea, Russia, Japan, China and the United States. The last meeting was two years ago, at the end of the Bush administration. Mr. Obama’s aides made it clear in interviews that the United States had no intention of returning to those talks soon. But its leverage is limited. When North Korea set off a nuclear test last year just months after Mr. Obama took office, the United States won passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution that imposed far harsher sanctions. The sanctions gave countries the right, and responsibility, to board North Korean ships and planes that landed at ports around the world and to inspect them for weapons. The effort seemed partly successful — but the equipment in the centrifuge plant is so new that it is clear that the trade restrictions did not stop the North from building what Siegfried S. Hecker, the visiting scientist, called an “ultramodern” nuclear complex.


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