South Koreans donate money to rebuild the naval ship Cheonan, the sinking of which Seoul has blamed on a North Korean torpedo attack. Photograph: Ahn Young-Joon/AP
North Korean military 'told to prepare for war'
Monitoring group says Kim Jong-il ordered officers to be ready for combat after S Korea blamed Pyongyang for torpedo attack
Tania Branigan in Beijing guardian.co.uk
Tuesday 25 May 2010 09.35 BST
The North Korean leader has warned his military to prepare for war in case the South attacks, a Seoul-based monitoring group reported today, as tensions remain high on the divided peninsula over accusations that Pyongyang sank a South Korean warship.
Kim Jong-il ordered officers to be ready for combat via a broadcast made hours after Seoul blamed the North for the Cheonan disaster, according to North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity. Citing unidentified sources from the North, it said the command was read by General O Kuk Ryol, a confidant of the leader, and broadcast on loudspeakers last week.
"We do not hope for war but if South Korea, with the US and Japan on its back, tries to attack us, Kim Jong-il has ordered us to finish the task of unification left undone during the ... [Korean] war," it quoted the broadcast as saying.
South Korean officials could not confirm the report and the defence ministry and joint chiefs of staff told Reuters they had not detected signs of unusual troop activity.
Analysts believe that neither side wants military action, fearing that the cost would prove too great, although there is a risk of skirmishes that could escalate.
An international group of experts reported last week that there was overwhelming evidence the North had torpedoed the 1,200-tonne corvette. Pyongyang denies the charge.
The Minju Joson newspaper said Seoul had fabricated the incident to pave the way for an invasion, according to the North's KCNA news agency.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said last night that he expected the security council to take action against North Korea when the South raised the case; comments described as unusual by several diplomats.
"My sincere hope is that this will be dealt with by the security council, and they should take necessary measures on this matter," he told a news conference at the UN headquarters. "There must be some major step to be taken. The evidence is quite compelling. There is no controversy."
He said he was not influenced by the fact he was a former South Korean foreign minister.
China, the North's main ally and a veto-wielding permanent member of the security council, has so far said little beyond urging both sides to show restraint. But experts say its position could yet shift.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is currently in Beijing and is pressing for China to work with the US and other countries. China's top nuclear envoy was also due to meet officials in Seoul today.
The South's military resumed propaganda broadcasts across the border this morning after a six-year hiatus, with programmes airing news, western music and comparisons of the political and economic situations on the two parts of the peninsula. It also plans to drop leaflets from balloons.
The psychological warfare will enrage the North, which warned it would fire at any propaganda facilities in the demilitarised zone. The South plans to put up loudspeakers and electronic billboards along the heavily fortified border, to encourage soldiers to defect.
Yesterday the Pentagon announced that the US and South Korea would conduct joint naval drills in the Yellow Sea, where the Cheonan sank in March with the loss of 46 lives. The exercises will test their ability to detect submarines and prevent the shipment of nuclear materials.
The impact of the South's decision to ban North Korean ships from its waters and suspend trade became clearer today.
Trade across the border totalled $1.68bn (£1.18bn) in 2009, about a third of the North's total, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.
Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University, told Associated Press that the measures would cost the North about $200m a year.
Timeline: North Korea – key events since the end of the Korean war
A chronology of clashes between North and South Korea and Pyongyang and the US since 1953
27 July 1953
The war ends when North and South Korea sign a truce – but there is no formal peace treaty, meaning the two countries remain technically at war. The Korean war cost two million lives.
15 August 1974
There is an assassination attempt on the then-South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, by a North Korean agent in Seoul. Park survives, but the first lady is killed.
9 October 1983
North Korean agents target the venue of a visit by the South's president, Chun Doo Hwan, to Burma, killing more than 20 people including four South Korean cabinet ministers. The president escapes.
29 November 1987
North Korea blows up a South Korean civilian airliner, killing 115 people. The US decides to include the North on its list of countries that support terrorism.
15 June 1999
More than 80 North Korean sailors die in the first Yellow Sea clash since the end of the war.
The then US president, George Bush, makes his "axis of evil" speech, which links North Korea with Iran and Iraq.
North Korea test-fires medium and long-range missiles.
9 October 2006
An international outcry follows North Korea's first nuclear test, and the UN sets up a series of sanctions.
North Korea test-fires short-range missiles.
A soldier shoots a South Korean tourist dead in the Mount Kumgang special tourism area of North Korea.
A North Korean border guard on patrol. There are fears of escalating clashes with South Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan. Photograph: Jacky Chen/Reuters
China faces tough choices over Korea
The complex North and South Korean situation could be shaped by the Chinese, if they can bear the burden of diplomacy
Monday 24 May 2010 17.30 BST
The risk of renewed, all-out warfare on the Korean peninsula is rated low by most western and Chinese analysts. But the chances of escalating armed clashes, planned or otherwise, have risen significantly following South Korea's decision to punish the North for the March sinking of its naval corvette, the Cheonan. And once shooting starts, it can be hard to stop.
Today's South Korean announcement that it is planning joint anti-submarine exercises with the US provides one obvious possible flashpoint. Seoul says a North Korean torpedo destroyed the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. If its vengeful navy were to encounter another of Kim Jong-il's submarines, mayhem may ensue.
President Lee Myung-bak's move to resume psy-ops (psychological warfare operations) along the demilitarised zone, including broadcast propaganda messages targeted at North Korean troops, has already led Pyongyang to threaten to shoot up the border. And if the South makes good its vow to intercept North Korean commercial shipping, more trouble is likely.
Both sides have much to lose if violence ratchets up. "This latest violence is as unlikely as previous incidents to lead to renewal of general fighting," said author Arthur Cyr in the China Post. "The Korean war was extraordinarily costly, and neither side has ever tried to renew such hostilities. North Korea now has at least a primitive nuclear weapon, but any use would result in instant devastating retaliation."
The US, with 29,000 troops based in the South, may quickly be drawn into any new skirmishing. Barack Obama has directed the US military to be ready "to deter future aggression" and is demanding the North admit responsibility and apologise. But cash-strapped Washington has no appetite, and scant capacity, for more war, with the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq unfinished. Much the same goes for Japan, which is backing South Korea at the UN security council.
The unpalatable truth is Washington has failed utterly to resolve the North Korean conundrum over a period of decades. Neither carrot nor stick has worked, while the problem has grown steadily worse. If any one country has sufficient leverage to prevent escalation of the current crisis and open the path to a solution, it is China, not the US.
Beijing is the North's only serious ally. It is its biggest trading partner, provides food and fuel, and recently gained Kim's agreement to expanded co-operation in talks in Beijing. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, recognises this fact. In Beijing for this week's US-China strategic dialogue, Clinton is urgently pressing Chinese leaders to rein in their rogue neighbour.
"The North Koreans will be more easily dissuaded from further attacks if they don't get cover from China," Michael Green of the Centre for International Studies told the New York Times. "It is absolutely critical to Korea and the US that China send that signal."
But China faces a difficult choice. Too much pressure could be counterproductive. If the ailing Kim's political position is as weak as some analysts suggest, he could fall in an internal military coup or succession struggle. Or the regime may implode, sending a flood of refugees across the Chinese border. The ensuing chaos could bring American intervention in China's backyard and prospectively, a reunited, democratic, pro-western Korea – a displeasing prospect for Beijing.
On the other hand, if it stands back and Kim gets away with the Cheonan attack (which US intelligence believes he personally authorised), China's wish for acceptance as a responsible member of the international community will suffer. And so, too, may its own security and commercial interests, as the North continues to enhance its nuclear and other WMD capabilities and an emboldened Kim and his generals create more provocations.
Given the multifaceted, inter-dependent and often fractious nature of the US-China relationship, there is a limit to the amount of pressure Washington can apply. On the other hand, South Korea could and should push China to act, Cyr said. "Seoul's economic leverage is crucial. China's trade with South Korea now approaches approximately $200bn per year, compared to about $3bn with North Korea. South Korea's government should use this leverage to maximum advantage," he said.
South Korea should nevertheless tread carefully for fear of making matters worse, said Irish Times commentator Patrick Smyth. "The determination that Pyongyang should understand that acts of piracy are not cost-free is constrained by fears that such measures will lead to increased hardship, not to mention the unpredictability of the North's reaction and the need to bring it back into the [UN-backed] nuclear talks."
The answer to North Korea's aggression, if there is one, may be a mixture of punitive US, South Korean and Japanese action backed by behind-the-scenes arm-twisting by the Chinese. But that would require the sort of united front that Beijing and Washington have notoriously failed to achieve on other key international issues such as Iran, free and fair trade, and climate change.
Lee Byong-Chul of the Seoul Institute for Peace and Co-operation suggested the key players remained China and the North Koreans themselves: "All in all, North Korea's future is likely to be shaped by a more complex set of circumstances surrounding the peninsula, with the fate of the Kim regime determined by the intricate power struggles of the party, the military and the bureaucracy, as well as by the degree to which China conditions its relations with a newly emerging regime," he said.
"China now should prove to the world that it's ready to address responsible diplomacy as a global leader."
• The headline of this article was amended on 24 May
It seems things are still in a standpoint. The Great Leader did say for his people/military to prepare for war but this was from last Friday. So no new actions yet. But that means we gotta keep SK from getting happy trigger finger and causing things to spiral out of control. I'm feeling hopeful with Clinton being in Beijing but we can't be all 'demandy' in situations like this. It pisses the Chinese off and they decide to not cooperate with us.
So who thinks the talks will work? What do you think NK will demand in order to stand down?