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(News Focus) Immediate N. Korean provocation unlikely as Seoul on high alert
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 19 (Yonhap) -- Chances of an immediate North Korean provocation appear low, but South Korean military is still keeping close tabs on the situation in light of the passing of its leader Kim Jong-il, officials and experts said Monday.

   They say North Korea, faced with such a major national crisis, is unlikely to stage a provocation immediately, but it's still possible that hard-liners in Pyongyang could take some unexpected action in the temporary leadership vacuum.


Against this backdrop, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) here issued an emergency alert for all military units while increasing its monitoring and surveillance activities on North Korea.

   A defense ministry official said South Korean forces and the U.S. forces stationed here have bolstered their monitoring by deploying more reconnaissance and surveillance assets. The official also said South Korean units are operating their own early response teams for contingencies.

   On the other hand, with North Korea going through a transitional phase as Kim Jong-il's heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, prepares to take over the throne, experts said military provocations may prove to be a hindrance to the leadership transfer.


They said North Korea may first take time to pay its respects to the late leader and then focus on ensuring the smooth hereditary succession by convening meetings of the ruling Workers' Party and Supreme People's Assembly.

   Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Pyongyang is unlikely to resort to armed provocations when the stalled six-party talks, aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program, appear close to resuming after almost three years. North Korea and the U.S. were scheduled to meet for a third round of bilateral nuclear talks this week in Beijing, though the session will likely be postponed.

   "I don't see North Korea pulling out the provocation card at a time when the six-party talks may restart," Kim said. "China may also deter North Korea from doing so."

   South Korea has bolstered its preparedness against armed North Korean provocations since last year, after North Korea torpedoed a South Korean warship Cheonan in March and then dropped artillery shells on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea in November. The two attacks claimed 50 South Korean lives, including two civilians.

   The South, in particular, remains guarded against potential aerial bombing or quick infiltration into Yellow Sea border islands by the North's guerrilla forces.

   "North Korea can carry out provocations at an unforeseen time and location," a military official said. "And should that happen, we will take firm and immediate action in response."

   Military sources said the North recently staged its annual winter military exercise, which included drills involving artillery units and fighter jets, and the North's armed forces have also been placed on heightened alert.