South Korea has few options to land mine attack, experts say
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea announced a series of measures this week aimed at deterring another North Korean land mine attack, from broadcasting anti-Pyongyang messages across the Demilitarized Zone to changing patrol times for its soldiers.
But in a climate where military officials fear that even the smallest exchange of fire could escalate into a full-blown conflict, there might be little Seoul will do to punish the North or discourage further provocations, some experts say.
Two South Korean soldiers were maimed Aug. 4 after triggering several recently planted land mines during a routine morning patrol at the DMZ, near Paju. The blasts happened about 1,440 feet south of the Military Demarcation Line, which marks the actual border between the two Koreas. One of the soldiers lost his legs, and the other lost a foot.
The land mine attack, while tragic, is a relatively minor incident in the larger picture of inter-Korean relations, and the appropriate response for Seoul is unclear, said Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.
“It’s this real kind of gray area that doesn’t rise to the level of triggering some kind of military counter attack,” he said.
South Korean forces will vary patrol times so they cannot be tracked by North Korea, and will increase the number of search and reconnaissance missions along the DMZ. Troops will also conduct a sweep for additional land mines this month, and will toughen engagement rules for North Korean troops who cross into the South’s territory, according to South Korean media reports Tuesday.
Some media reports also said South Korean troops were previously instructed to broadcast a warning to stray North Korean forces, and then fire a warning shot before shooting at them. Now, soldiers reportedly have permission to fire directly at any North Korean troops they encounter.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense would not confirm the land mine sweep or new procedures for interacting with North Korean troops south of the demarcation line.
While the South’s decision to resume propaganda broadcasts is viewed as provocative by the North, it falls short of the use of force. And though South Korean President Park Geun-hye feels a need to demonstrate strength because Pyongyang views her as weak, she is not expected to respond militarily, said David Garretson, a retired professor of international relations from the University of Maryland University College in Seoul.
The U.S. could also respond with limited shows of force, such as an increase in reconnaissance flights or B-52 flyovers, Garretson said, “but nothing too provocative.”
“There are lots of small options … but I do not expect anything big by all parties,” he said. “Nobody wants a crisis on the Korean Peninsula at the moment.”
The land mine attack was likely prompted by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s desire for attention at a time when U.S. negotiations over a nuclear deal with Iran have overshadowed his efforts to get one, he said. The North also wants to remind the U.S. that it is a nuclear power and should be treated as one.
In the short term, Garretson expects to see more adverse actions from the North as the U.S. and South Korea enter the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises later this month. The annual computer-simulated war games typically involve tens of thousands of troops, and are viewed as a provocation by the North.
There’s a desire within South Korea to punish any provocations from the North, Pinkston said, and many in military and government circles believe a swift and harsh retaliation would send a signal about Seoul’s resolve and intent to punish future attacks. South Korean military officials are vowing retaliation so they don’t appear weak to a domestic audience, he said.
“I’m sure people are enraged about this, and you have to come out with the strong rhetoric. You can’t sit back and say nothing,” Pinkston said. The danger is that Pyongyang will perceive the South’s threats as being empty, and with the North, “that earns you a reputation as being weak and bluffing.”
Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.