S. Korea's Fine Line: Talk Tough, Keep Finger Off Trigger

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David Guttenfelder / AP

A South Korean marine sits by a shrapnel hole in the window of his vehicle while waiting for fellow marines to remove North Korean shells found on Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 28, 2010

The response from Seoul to China's proposed emergency consultations among the members of the so-called six-party talks — including North Korea, fresh off shelling a sparsely populated South Korean island, which killed four people — didn't take long in coming. In a nationally televised address on Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak acknowledged responsibility for "not having been able to protect the lives and property of the people" on Yeonpyeong Island. But from the attack he drew the following conclusion: "At long last, we came to a realization that it no longer makes sense for us to anticipate that the North would abandon its nuclear program or its policy of brinkmanship on its own.''

To be sure, the phrase "on its own" tacked on at the end of that sentence leaves the South a little wiggle room to rejoin — at some point — the talks over the North's steadily progressing nuclear weapons program. But as of now, sources in Seoul reiterated on Monday, the only way South Korea or the U.S. would return to the talks is if Pyongyang were prepared to take immediate steps to live up to the commitment it made on Sept. 19, 2005, to begin standing down its nuclear program.

That message was apparently reinforced to China's top foreign policy official, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, in a meeting with President Lee in Seoul on Sunday. Frustration with what is perceived to be China's inaction in trying to rein in its apparently incorrigible ally has built up over time in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. One Korean diplomat was quoted in a Seoul newspaper on Monday as saying that Beijing's calls for a resumption of dialogue with the North so soon after the attack last week was "sad." (It is unclear how Dai responded to South Korea's urging that China do more.)

Lee's speech came just one day after the U.S. and South Korea began one of their largest-ever naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, west of the Korean peninsula. The U.S. has sent the nuclear-powered, 97,000-ton aircraft carrier the U.S.S. George Washington and E-8C surveillance planes to participate in the exercises. China has warned that the exercises should not occur in its exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles (322 km) from its border, and Pyongyang threatened "merciless retaliation" should there be any live fire across the disputed maritime border separating the two Koreas. The joint exercises are thus far being conducted well south of the maritime border. They will run through Dec. 1.

In a nod to just how tense the situation remains militarily, South Korea announced on Monday afternoon that it would conduct artillery drills on Tuesday on Yeonpyeong Island — and then, within hours, it said the drills had been postponed. The Korean press reported on Monday that officials at the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the drills were postponed because the Marine unit on the island had mistakenly announced them without getting approval from higher military authorities. Those authorities decided to postpone the exercise, though Seoul insists the drills will take place at a later date.

Lee tried in his speech to reassure a South Korean electorate stunned at the images of fire and destruction on Yeonpyeong that it would never happen again. "From now on," he said, "the government will do whatever is required of it without fail. We will establish armed forces that live up to their name. We will defend the five West Sea Islands near the northern sea border with a watertight stance against any kind of provocation."

But diplomats in Seoul say Lee's administration is acutely aware of just how fine a line the President needs to walk, given how tense the border remains. "In this kind of situation, you have to be careful talking about retaliation," a Western diplomat said on Monday. "Everyone understands that one mistake can lead to another and then to another, and the result can be disastrous." Thus, Lee was careful to say that only if the North "commits any additional provocations against the South" would Seoul "make sure that it pays a dear price without fail."

That was the message to Pyongyang, but it wasn't the only one contained in the speech. "Those who have so far supported the North Korean regime might now [in the wake of the Yeonpyeong attack] see its true colors," Lee said. That one was aimed at Beijing. It's too early to know if the message was received.