Monday, 9 March 2009
Launch firing up Korean tensions
By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul
So the large-scale military exercise, involving around 50,000 US and South Korean troops has gone ahead as planned, despite North Korea's angry complaints.
I went along to see one of the many events to which the media are invited during the 12 days of drills.
At the Camp Carroll army base, in central South Korea, the US keeps a battalion of tanks, mothballed in a warehouse.
We watched as the tank crews, who would be flown in as reinforcements in the event of a war, rehearsed the process of loading their vehicles onto railway trucks to be transported north towards the border.
As clouds of exhaust fumes rose in the cold, winter morning, and dozens of armoured vehicles roared towards the test track, it made an impressive sight.
Was this, as North Korea alleges, a dry-run for an invasion, I asked one of the commanding officers.
"This is just an opportunity for us to train our soldiers," Lt-Col Raymond Jensen, commander of the US Army Field Support Battalion, told me.
"It is a training exercise we hold every year."
And indeed North Korea complains every year, so why is it then that this time it seems more upset than usual?
The answer may lie in its recent announcement that it is pushing ahead with full preparations to put a communications satellite into orbit.
It has run into predictably fierce opposition from its neighbours and the United States, who all consider the planned launch to be a cover for a long-range missile test.
This is more to do with North Korea positioning itself and attempting to send a message to the Obama administration
Mark Fitzpatrick, analyst
Officials from Japan and the US have even suggested that they might try to shoot it down if necessary, a threat that has infuriated the North.
Arguing that it has a right to the peaceful development of a space programme, it has turned up the rhetoric, saying any interception of its rocket would be viewed as "an act of war" and lead to retaliation.
It is this wrangling over the launch, rather than the disgruntlement over the military exercises, that could be the real cause behind the escalating tension.
Even the North's statement that, if the military exercise went ahead, it would no longer be able to guarantee the safety of passenger planes, may be connected.
One South Korean government spokesman indicated that the warning may be an advance notice to clear the skies ahead of the launch.
Whatever it was, international airlines are taking no chances and have re-routed their planes to avoid the airspace controlled by North Korea off its east coast.
The rising tension, though, should also be seen against the wider backdrop of the deteriorating relations between Pyongyang and Seoul.
The North has seen the unconditional aid that once used to flow its way cut off by a conservative administration in the South, in power now for just over a year.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak says it will resume if the North gives up its nuclear weapons programme.
In angry retaliation, the North has been shutting down some of the symbols of inter-Korean co-operation built over the previous 10 years, a freight train link and all cross-border tourism projects for example.
This week, the remaining military communications line between North and South has now gone dead, jeopardising the one remaining landmark project, the joint industrial zone at the North Korean city of Kaesong.
So with the atmosphere as bad as its been in a long time, and North Korea putting its 1.2 million strong army at a state of what it calls "combat readiness", how worried should we be?
"I don't think we should ignore this outburst," Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told the BBC.
"The Korean peninsular is always a tinder box where war could erupt at the drop of a hat. But this is more to do with North Korea positioning itself and attempting to send a message to the Obama administration."
It is certainly posing a tough foreign policy challenge, apparently in no mood to compromise, and with its rocket launch, according to some analysts, perhaps just a few weeks away.
The US and South Korea hold these military exercises every year
Inter-Korean projects have fallen off as ties have chilled