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(LEAD) (News Focus) Military tensions between Koreans unlikely to get out of control: U.S. experts

2015/08/21 06:38

(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 8-10)

By Chang Jae-soon

WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 (Yonhap) -- Military tensions between South and North Korea, which were heightened dramaticlly by an exchange of artillery fire across their heavily armed border, are unlikely to grow out of control and lead to major clashes, a U.S. expert said Thursday.

The North fired one artillery shell across the border shortly before 4 p.m. local time before firing several more rounds about 20 minutes later. South Korea later responded by firing dozens of shells into the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.

There was no report of casualties or damage on the South from the exchange of fire.

The North's provocation came after Pyongyang warned it would launch "indiscriminate strikes" against the South unless Seoul halts anti-Pyongyang propaganda broadcasts along the border. It also came three days after the South and the U.S. launched the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises.

The South resumed the long-suspended loudspeaker broadcasts after an investigation determined that North Korea secretly buried landmines on the southern side of the DMZ that exploded earlier this month and maimed two South Korean soldiers.

"Although both the landmine incident and the artillery incident have raised tensions to some degree, I do not think they will lead to a larger conflict," said Alan Romberg, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington.

"In fact, it seems to me that the North chose actions -- importantly aimed at protesting the joint ROK-U.S. exercises now under way -- that would be more or less self-contained. Of course, either side could escalate, but I don't see that as likely," he said.

Romberg said the North wants to show it is serious in its objections to the military exercises in the South, loudspeaker propaganda and tough words from Seoul, but "why would either side want to take steps that could lead to a war?"

   Ken Gause, a senior analyst on Korea at CNA Corp., also said he does not believe the situation will get out of control. The fact that the North did not respond to South Korea's return fire appears to show Pyongyang does not want to further escalate the situation, he said.

"The only way I see this escalating out of control is if North Korea feels it has to respond forcefully to a ROK response to its initial provocation. We saw today with the exchange of fire across the DMZ that North Korea struck first, the ROK responded very strongly, and NK did not respond," Gause said.

"In my opinion, North Korea is probing to see where the boundaries are with regard to how the ROK will respond. It is not designed to escalate, something Pyongyang probably does not want. But, of course, the tension created on the peninsula could lead to miscalculations and accidents that could get out of control," he said.

Douglas Paal, vice president and director of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the North's provocation appears to be another series of incidents meant to "signal unhappiness with joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises."

   "Pyongyang seems to feel a need to demonstrate its displeasure with military means," he said.

The expert said tensions could escalate until the military exercises in the South are complete. And eventually, rising tensions could "give Pyongyang a pretext to test missiles and a nuclear device again," he said.

Victor Cha, chief Korea analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the North's provocations are not a direct response to the South-U.S. drills, but they "correlate with the pattern of inter-Korean relations prior to the military exercises."

   The United States urged the North to refrain from threatening regional peace and security.

"We are concerned by the firing of a projectile into South Korea from the North. As we've said before, these kinds of provocative actions only heighten tensions and we call on Pyongyang to refrain from actions and rhetoric that threaten regional peace and security," State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

"The United States remains steadfast in its commitments to the defense and security of the peninsula, to our alliance with South Korea and we're going to continue to closely coordinate with the Republic of Korea," he said.

The U.S. Defense Department said it is closely monitoring the situation and reaffirmed its commitment to South Korea's defense. The Pentagon also said it will take "prudent measures" to ensure the safety of American troops stationed in South Korea.

The North has denied provoking the exchange of artillery fire, accusing the South of using what it calls a "nonexistent pretext" to attack it. The North claimed the South fired 36 rounds and many of them landed near some of its border guard posts, but did not cause any damage, according to the North's state broadcasters.

"Putting forward a nonexistent pretext that our military fired a shell toward the South, warmaniacs of the South Korean puppet military engaged in the reckless act," the North's military said, calling the South's firing "a grave military provocation that can never be tolerated."

   It also claimed that the North is closely watching how South Korea will respond to its warning that it would take strong military action unless the South stops border propaganda broadcasts and dismantles broadcast facilities within 48 hours.