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SEOUL — Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter heads to North Korea this week in hopes of breaking a months-long stalemate on the peninsula, and he does so after a particularly contentious few days.

On Friday, a high-ranking government official was quoted by North Korea’s official news agency threatening “unpredictable and merciless punishment from our army” if balloons carrying anti-North propaganda continue to be launched from south of the Demilitarized Zone. Two days later, North Korea’s defense chief reportedly issued similar warnings about recent military exercises staged by South Korea and the U.S., saying that any war that resulted from these “madcap maneuvers for mounting a (surprising) pre-emptive attack” would lead the North to “wipe out the aggressors (in) one blow.”

Meanwhile, the South Korean government deployed about a dozen rocket launchers to two Yellow Sea islands involved in separate incidents last year, Yonhap News Agency reported Sunday.

“The permanent deployment of the multiple rocket launchers on the northwesternmost islands is a symbolic measure to show we’re willing to use formidable firepower to punish the North in case of further provocations,” an anonymous military source was quoted as saying in the Yonhap report.

But the recent developments aren’t likely to bring the two sides to the brink of war, said David Garretson, a Seoul-based professor of international relations for the University of Maryland University College.

While North Korea is sure “to scream provocation,” over the deployment of the rocket launchers, Garretson said, “I don’t think they will want to rock any boats in the short-term,” given Carter’s visit and the North’s attempts in recent months to get back into negotiations with the South, the U.S. and other countries.

The situation between the two Koreas has been in limbo in recent months.

Earlier this year, the North and South began low-level talks aimed at bringing a more stable peace to the peninsula. However, those talks eventually broke down, after the North Korean delegation abruptly walked out of the meeting. At issue was a disagreement over whether the North was to blame for the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of a South Korean island last year, according to the South Korea Ministry of National Defense.

In an effort to restart negotiations, Carter – along with former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Norwegian Prime Minister Dr. Gro Grundtland and former Irish President Mary Robinson – is scheduled to fly to North Korea on Tuesday for three days of talks.

In a statement issued by The Elders – an independent group of global leaders whose goal is to support global peace and humanity – Carter is quoted as saying, “At a time when official dialogue with (North Korea) appears to be at a standstill, we aim to see how we may be of assistance in reducing tensions and help the parties address key issues, including denuclearization.”

Garretson said he doesn’t think the North will view the deployment of the rocket launchers in the days before Carter’s visit as “especially provocative.”

The move “looks good domestically, politically,” he said, but South Korea’s “artillery response last time was pretty meager.”

Garretson was referring to the North’s Nov. 23, 2010, shelling of Yeonpyeong Island which left four people dead and about 30 of the island’s 500 homes destroyed. The South Korean military returned fire and scrambled fighters during the attack, but was widely criticized in the Korean media for its lackluster response.

That followed the March 26, 2010, sinking of the war ship Cheonan, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, near Baeknyeong Island which, like Yeonpyeong, sits near the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas. An international panel of investigators determined a North Korean torpedo was responsible for bringing down the Cheonan, but the North has denied any involvement in the incident.

The rocket launchers were deployed to both Yeonpyeong and Baeknyeong islands. The Korean-made Kooryong multiple rocket launchers are significantly more powerful than the equipment North Korea used in attacking the Yeonpyeong, according to The Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

Earlier this year, Yeonpyeong Island resident Lee Sung-bong told Stars and Stripes, “If we have the chance to launch a pre-emptive strike or avenge what the North did in the future, I hope our military will pay them back at least double. Then, the entire nation, including Yeonpyeong Islanders, would feel better.”

rabiroffj@pstripes.osd.mil

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