By Kim Young-jin
Speculation is rising among officials and analysts over the possibility of provocative action by North Korea in the run-up to the Dec. 19 presidential elections.
In recent weeks, the North has ratcheted up tensions near the disputed maritime border and sent propaganda leaflets criticizing conservative candidate Park Geun-hye across the land border in its latest apparent attempt to influence voter sentiment.
Scott Snyder, a Korea analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, said that in the event of a pre-election surprise, Pyongyang will most likely attempt an incursion over a possible nuclear test, though the latter is not out of the question.
“The North Korean leadership may believe that saber rattling will remind the neighboring population that North Korea is a threat,” he said. “This logic suggests that an inter-Korean incursion is more likely than a nuclear or missile test given the history of North Korean efforts to influence South Korean elections.”
Other possibilities included waiting until after the elections to test new leaders in Seoul and perhaps Washington. Or the Kim Jong-un regime could stand pat as it seeks foreign investment to buoy its sickly economy.
Attempts to influence the electoral process has been dubbed by media as “the North wind,” and reminds South Koreas of previous provocations _ the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight and armed provocations by the North Korean military at the truce village of Panmunjom in 1996 that preceded polls.
If the regime does try such a move, it is unclear whether the trick would work because some observers say South Korean voters have grown weary of the attempts. It also remains to be seen whether it could push voters to the left or right.
On Monday, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin called on soldiers to prepare for a range of provocations. "North Korea may provoke in a way which we cannot expect, although they are currently focusing on waters (in the West Sea),” he said.
Seoul says that North Korean fishing vessels have crossed the maritime border multiple times in recent weeks. Pyongyang blames the South Korean navy for the “touch and go” situation in the West Sea.
Also Monday, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Pak Kil-yon resumed Pyongyang’s rhetoric over its nuclear program, saying that Washington’s “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang has caused a dangerous situation in which “a spark of fire could set off a thermonuclear war."