By Sam Kim
SEOUL, May 27 (Yonhap) -- Unyielding and unbending, the two Koreas appear to be on a collision course that warrants extraordinary diplomatic intervention, analysts said Thursday.
Since last week, the divided states have been hurling volatile rhetoric and warnings at each other as the South charges the North with attacking its 1,200-ton corvette off their west coast.
North Korea, which denies any role in the sinking of the Cheonan, threatened an "all-out war" if it is punished for the tragedy, which claimed 46 lives. The impoverished country is also instilling a sense of alarm among its population while reportedly putting its 1.2 million troops on combat alert.
On Wednesday, a South Korean official said his country and the United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed here, have raised their alert level by a notch to deal with rising tensions.
The last time "Watchcon" was elevated to the second highest level was in May last year when North Korea conducted its second nuclear test.
Analysts say the tension will only intensify if Seoul resumes its anti-Pyongyang propaganda activities along the heavily armed inter-Korean border, part of its retaliatory measures for the sinking.
"The psychological warfare is an enormously important issue (to North Korea.) We cannot rule out the possibility of a gunfight along the Demilitarized Zone" once it begins, Jang Yong-suk, a researcher at the Institute for Peace Affairs, said.
North Korea has warned repeatedly it will fire at South Korean loudspeakers if anti-Pyongyang broadcasts, halted since 2004, resume. Analysts warn that a gunshot could lead to a wider conflict as serious as another full-scale war on the peninsula, which remains technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.
"This is a head-on collision course without an exit strategy," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said. "Neither side has a willingness to back down, and diplomatic intervention appears to be the only option."
Yang said a special envoy empowered by international powers, notably China and the United States, or the United Nations, could be one avenue to defusing tension.
A clear example of what a special envoy can do emerged in 1994 when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew into Pyongyang, as the U.S. scrambled its forces in the East Sea and South Korea descended into near panic after the North threatened to turn Seoul into "a sea of fire."
Carter hammered out a deal with then-North Korean President Kim Il-sung that paved the way for a nuclear breakthrough on the peninsula and steps for reconciliation between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Kang Seong-yun, a North Korea scholar at Seoul's Dongguk University, was pessimistic, saying neither of the two Koreas would change course at this stage even if a mediator stepped in.
"Would they listen? Unless the situation gets so bad as to pressure the sides to seek outside mediation, it's doubtful they'll bend," he said.
If the option of a special envoy merits no recognition, China and the U.S. could intervene in a more robust manner, the analysts said, possibly by directly tying the Cheonan sinking to the denuclearization of the communist North.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her South Korean counterpart, Yu Myung-hwan, opened up room for such a notion when they briefly met on Wednesday in Seoul.
"There is the immediate crisis caused by the sinking of the naval vessel, which requires a strong but measured response. But there is the longer term challenge of changing the direction of North Korea," such as denuclearization and the improvement of North Korean people's lives, Clinton said.
"We have to work on both of those tracks simultaneously, and that's what we're attempting to do," she said, while Yu said that South Korea's retaliatory "measures themselves are not an end."
"They are just a means to send a clear message to North Korea that it is in response to their actions, and it is also a means to lead North Korea down the right road," he said.
South Korea refuses to agree to the resumption of six-nation talks, stalled since late 2008, on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs unless the Cheonan issue is resolved.
But what if the sinking is lumped with denuclearization as agenda in the six-nation aid-for-denuclearization talks, which Pyongyang has apparently wanted reopened since last year? Kang said it is far-fetched but not totally unlikely.
"That would require clear signals from North Korea that it is ready to immediately make progress in its denuclearization and that it is willing to talk about the Cheonan in an international framework," he said. "China and the U.S. could seize on such an attitude to turn the situation around swiftly and comprehensively."
North Korea demands that Seoul accept an "inspection group" from Pyongyang and verify the results of its multinational probe into the sinking in front of the delegation. But it has ruled out intervention by the U.S.-led U.N. Command, saying the sinking is a matter entirely between Seoul and Pyongyang.
On Friday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is to arrive in Seoul for a three-way meeting with South Korea and Japan over the weekend, a visit that will be scrutinized for hints into China's thoughts.
Few people doubt South Korea and the U.S. would win if they engaged in a war with North Korea, barring Chinese intervention. But such a conflict would nearly annihilate the economy of South Korea and cause severe casualties for the U.S.
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