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(News Focus) N.K. leader's front-line inspections fuel military clash concerns
By Lee Joon-seung
SEOUL, March 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's recent visits to front-line units along the communist country's southwestern coast is fueling concerns that there might be another military clash between the two Koreas in the Yellow Sea, local observers said Tuesday.

   Observers tracking media reports of Kim's movements said visits to military garrisons on Mu and Jangjae islets late last week by the young leader, and his tour of Wolnae islet on Monday, can be seen as Pyongyang trying to launch another attack in the region that has seen several bloody clashes since the late 1990s.


Seoul controls the so-called Seohae Islands of Baengnyeong, Daecheong, Socheong, Yeonpyeong and Udo, which allow the country to maintain the Northern Limit Line (NLL). The NLL acts as the de facto sea border, but Pyongyang has never recognized its legitimacy and drew its own sea lanes and sea demarcation line in 2000, which Seoul has also rejected.

   Navies of the two Koreas clashed in 1999 and 2002 near Yeonpyeong Island, with another skirmish taking place off Daecheong Island in 2009. This was followed by the sinking of the South Korean Naval vessel Cheonan in March 2010 near the NLL, leaving 46 sailors dead, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong eight months later that resulted in four deaths including two civilians.

   North Korean watchers said the visits to the units at Mu and Jangjae, which took part in the shelling of Yeonpyeong, and the trip to Wolnae that lies only 12 kilometers from Baengnyeong, are to help strengthen Kim's grip on power and to show the military his fortitude and leadership capabilities by inspecting units in view of South Korean troops.

   During the tour of Mu and Jangjae, Kim pointed out that waters off North Korea's west coast were sensitive, but made clear to troops that if one enemy shell fell in North Korean waters or its territory, soldiers must be ready to act and destroy the aggressors.

   "The visits and spike in military activity in the North and in particular along the coastal regions may be a sign that the North may again attack the Seohae Islands or trigger conflict in waters near these territories," said a military source, asking for anonymity. He said South Korea's military intelligence reported that North Korea has moved many of its coastal guns into caves and positioned its 240 millimeter multiple rocket launcher systems (MRLS) in areas where they can strike South Korean military targets.

   The official added that the presence of many top military officers in Kim's entourage like Choe Ryong-hae, director of the military General Political Bureau; Kim Kyok-sik, Armed Forces minister; and Kim Yong-chol, head of the Army's Reconnaissance General Bureau, can be a sign that Pyongyang may be thinking of launching another strike.

   Reflecting this view, a unification ministry source said that Pyongyang has the capability to launch a strike at any time, and that this is putting pressure on Seoul policymakers to come up with a viable countermeasure to prevent such development and to limit any fallout.

   To deal with the constant threat, Seoul created the Northwest Islands Defense Command in June 2011 and built up defenses on the five islands by assigning an additional 1,000 troops to the 6th Marine Brigade on Baengnyeong, and by deploying tanks, MRLS, anti-artillery radar, AH-1S Cobra gunships and Super Lynx helicopters.


South Korean Marines prepare to board ship to return to their units on Baengnyeon Island. (Yonhap file photo)

Others, however, said that while the North is upping the ante, it may not be interested in launching an attack. Advocates of such views claim Pyongyang is making threats mainly to bolster its leader's credentials.

   Kim, reported to be in his late 20s or early 30s, took power suddenly after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011 and was not well known even in North Korea. This lack of grooming for the top post has raised speculation that the present leader's control over the country is not as strong as that of his late father or Kim Il-sung, the incumbent's grandfather and founder of the communist state.

   "The visit to units can show Kim being firm against foreign powers that can make him look like a bold and decisive leader," said Chang Yong-seok, senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

   The researcher said that with South Korea and the United States engaged in the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises, it is not to Pyongyang's advantage to launch an attack.

   He, however, conceded that if South Korean forces conduct live fire exercises near the NLL, the North may respond with a limited attack, like the actions taken against Yeonpyeong.