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(News Focus) Drills send message, but not enough to deter N. Korea: experts
SEOUL, Dec. 1 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the U.S. have once again demonstrated their alliance and combined military strength through the just-concluded four-day joint naval drills in the tense Yellow Sea, sending a clear message to Pyongyang that any further provocations won't be tolerated and will invite a deadly counterattack, analysts and experts said Wednesday.

   But it still remains to be seen whether a defiant North Korea will take such a message seriously, they said, calling on the allies to make good on threats to strike back against the North militarily.

   Highlighted by the deployment of a nuclear-powered U.S. supercarrier, the large-scale joint military exercises were staged after the North's fatal artillery attack on a populated South Korean island killed four people.

   In what President Lee Myung-bak called a "crime against humanity," the Nov. 23 bombardment on Yeonpyeong Island near the tense Yellow Sea border marked an escalation in the ferocity of North Korean aggressions, adding a frightening dimension to the North's decades-old threat: a direct attack onto civilian targets on the South's territory.

   The first shelling on a civilian area in the South since the 1950-53 Korean War also wounded 18 others, mostly marines, and destroyed a number of homes and buildings, prompting most of the island's 1,400 panicked residents to evacuate.

   What's more embarrassing, the deliberate attack came despite of a series of joint drills by Seoul and Washington off the peninsula following the North's torpedo strike on a Navy corvette Cheonan in March, which left 46 sailors dead.

   As previously, the North's shelling on Yeonpyeong appears to have gotten the same treatment: joint South Korea-U.S. military drills, a flurry of diplomatic efforts to rein in Pyongyang and verbal warnings that additional provocative acts would be punished.

   North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and his generals know well that South Korea would not launch a revenge strike, fearing it would cripple Asia's No. 4 economy. Unless South Korea and its ally U.S. change their subdued response, experts say, the North will never be deterred.

   "We have seen two extraordinary cases of deterrence failure this year. Deterrence must be restored," said Daniel Pinkston, an analyst in Seoul for the International Crisis Group, referring to the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling on Yeonpyeong.

   "The threat of retaliation and imposing real costs on North Korea must be credible," Pinkston said. "And there must be costs imposed on North Korea, or it will never stop."

   Pinkston said South Korea and the U.S. held their joint drills with tremendous restraint this year to accommodate China's concerns.

   "This restraint apparently emboldened Pyongyang," he said. "I think the exercises should be frequent from this point on, and into the indefinite future until North Korea changes its belligerent posture."

   While wrapping up this week's drills, South Korea and the U.S. have been in consultations to hold several subsequent rounds of joint exercises this month or early next year, Seoul's military officials said.

   To cope with North Korea's threat and make deterrence work, South Korea's military should also increase its readiness to run risks of a greater conflict, analysts said.

   "Deterrence literally means that it discourages someone by instilling fear of the consequences," said a senior analyst at the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA).

   "Whenever North Korea stages an act of provocation against the South that goes unpunished militarily, there is always the possibility that similar provocation is likely to occur," the analyst said, asking not to be named.

   "Sometimes, although it is very unpleasant, we have to fight. Otherwise, why do we have armed forces?" the KIDA analyst said.

   The South's government has bolstered its military strength on Yellow Sea border islands and said it will toughen up its rules of engagement, which have focused on avoiding a war.

   Many analysts believe that the artillery attack may be aimed at grabbing the world's attention as Pyongyang seeks to restart the stalled international talks on its nuclear weapons program to try to get much-needed aid at a time when it moves toward a second dynastic succession.

   South Korea and the U.S. have been pressing the North to take concrete steps demonstrating its denuclearization commitments before reopening the negotiations that involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. The talks, which were last held in December 2008, have been stalled due to Pyongyang's boycott.

   A week before the artillery strike on Yeonpyeong, the North delivered another warning to South Korea and the U.S. by revealing its new uranium enrichment plant to a group of visiting American scientists.

   "The attack on Yeonpyeong shows Pyongyang started using brinkmanship as Seoul and Washington have remained cool over its willingness to return to the six-party talks," said Kim Young-soo, a political science professor at Sogang University in Seoul.

   "After the revelation of its uranium enrichment plant, the attack was aimed at showing the world that it won't be ignored," the professor said.

   kdh@yna.co.kr
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