UPDATE//28 November/0726 EST// Updated information from Yonhap indicates North Korea has moved both anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles to launch positions near the Yellow Sea. The SAMs have been identified as SA-2s, the aging, Russian-built system that has been the backbone of the DPRK air defense network for more than 40 years. They do not pose a significant threat to the advanced tactical aircraft operated by the U.S. and the South Korean air forces. The anti-ship missiles have a range of up to 60 miles but they also represent rather dated technology.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula ratcheted even higher on on Sunday, amid reports that North Korea has placed surface-to-surface missiles on launching pads near the Yellow Sea.
Reports from Reuters (and other media outlets) didn't specify the type of missiles, but given the location, they are almost certainly anti-ship weapons, perhaps the Chinese-designed C-802, which is deployed--and occasionally tested--at positions along the North Korean coast. At those locations, the anti-ship missiles could be used to target U.S. or ROK naval vessels operating near the Northern Limit Line, the maritime extension of the demilitarized zone which divides the two Koreas.
The deployment effectively raises the ante in the current standoff between North and South Korea. Missions normally conducted in that portion of the Yellow Sea, ranging from freedom of navigation to the reinforcement and resupply of South Korean-controlled islands, now face a heightened threat from North Korea's coastal defense batteries.
While these missiles are always a potential menace, their deployment to launch positions suggests a heightened alert posture. And, based on the example of last week's artillery barrage against ROK positions on Yeonpyeong Island, there may be standing orders--from Kim Jong-il himself--that would allow the missile batteries to engage allied naval targets with only the slightest "provocation."
After the artillery strike on the South Korean island, it was revealed that the North Korean leader (and his designated successor), Kim Jong-un, had met with military commanders in the area during the hours leading up to the barrage. Deployment of the coastal defense missiles, preparation for a possible nuclear test in the coming weeks and the personal involvement of Kim Jong-il affairs that the North Korean leaders is engaged in his familiar game of brinkmanship, and this particular episode is far from over.
Pyongyang will likely describe the missile deployment as a "defensive measure," taken in reaction to naval drills between the U.S. and South Korea that are now underway. But that claim is rather specious, since much of the activity will occur far from the disputed waters of the NLL. But it does provide a potential pretext for launching anti-ship missiles at ROK patrol craft and other vessels in the Yellow Sea.
And, at that point, the ball is back in the court of the Seoul government and their allies in Washington. Let's suppose North Korea locks onto a South Korea or U.S. Navy vessel with its target tracking radar. That alone is considered an act of war, giving allied commanders the right to defend themselves, by targeting the unit or system responsible. Will political leaders grant that authority, or will they remain hesitant for further "provoke" the DPRK.
Beyond that, what about options for wider military action, including counter-attacks against other missile sites/offensives systems. That is also well within the right of military commanders (under standing operations plans in most theaters), but there's no indication that American or South Korean leaders would quickly grant that authority to their armed forces. Historically, all responses to Pyongyang's provocations have been deliberate and measured, and limited to political and diplomatic measures. While North Korea has routinely targeted U.S. and ROK military personnel for decades, we have been extremely reluctant to return the favor.
Now may be the time to return the favor. As Kim Jong-il pushes the peninsula towards the brink, the U.S. and South Korea must be clear in explaining the consequences of future attacks--and be willing to follow through. One reason the DPRK has grown so emboldened is a consistent lack of action on the part of the United States and our allies in Seoul. Recent history suggests North Korea has little to fear from allied bluster. At this point, they have little incentive to back down.
No one wants war on the Korean peninsula. But the feckless appeasement of Kim's regime is hardly a path to peace.