SEOUL, South Korea — Not since the end of the Korean War nearly six decades ago has South Korea appeared so willing to use significant military force against its northern neighbor, following North Korea’s shelling of a populated South Korean island last month and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan eight months earlier.

But would South Korea really respond with the kind of military force that could plunge the peninsula into war? Or is it making empty threats? And, how much influence does the U.S. have over South Korea’s response to the North’s next provocation?

Political and military analysts say public frustration over Seoul’s perceived inaction against Pyongyang, as well as dwindling patience with leader Kim Jong Il’s erratic regime, could push the South to retaliate.

“In normal times, this could be regarded simply as an exchange of words,” said Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute in Seoul. “I think there is a danger to actually executing what they said, which may ignite a chain of reactions on both sides, escalating the conflict to quite a serious military conflict.”

Kim Tae-woo of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said South Korea has always weighed two options: Retaliate with force against the North and risk war, or remain patient and risk another attack.

So far patience has won. But perhaps no more, Kim said.

The shelling of Yeonpyeong island marked the first time since the Korean War that the North has indiscriminately fired on South Korean territory and killed civilians. And it marks a disturbing escalation in the North’s willingness to stake its claim to waters south of the maritime border it has never recognized, Kim said.

Those waters are strategically important for the protection of sprawling Seoul and an international airport and port at nearby Incheon, Kim said.

“It is our lifeline, and now North Korea is claiming it is theirs,” he said. “If North Korea continues to claim it as their territory, frankly speaking, this is serious enough to go to war.”

Daniel Pinkston, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Seoul, said he expects South Korea to respond with force to another assault, particularly if North Korea attacks civilians. But the likelihood that North Korea will attack again decreases if its leaders believe there will be a cost, he added.

“They’re not interested at all in economic reform or economic prosperity or improving the standard of living for their people,” Pinkston said. “The only thing they think about or understand is power.”

But Shunji Hiraiwa, a Korean studies professor at Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo, Japan, said South Korean airstrikes are unlikely. The South is making the threat as a way to deter attacks from the North and pacify its own people, who are angry at the North, he said.

The next attack

Many analysts believe it’s a matter of when, not if, North Korea will launch another strike.

Among them is Bruce Bechtol, author of “Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security,” who said nobody knows what form the next provocation will take – perhaps an air attack or special operations teams infiltrating one of the islands near the maritime border.

“Whatever action they do, it’s something that will be very carefully planned for, and it’s something that’s probably been planned for the past two years,” he said.

Bechtol said South Korean commanders should be given the flexibility and the force to respond as needed – something that wasn’t the case at Yeonpyeong.

“I think the thing that makes the difference is taking the proper military steps - taking them immediately and with full force,” said Bechtol, an associate professor of political science at Angelo State University. “That’s what’s going to stop these things from happening.”

It’s not clear whether the U.S. would support airstrikes against the North, which could escalate the conflict and threaten to draw in the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on South Korean soil.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday in Seoul that he “did not ask South Korea to take air options off the table” during a meeting with South Korean defense officials. He added that South Korea is a sovereign nation with the right to respond to provocations as it chooses.

Still, the possibility of airstrikes raises thorny questions about how closely the U.S. and South Korea are working together.

During peacetime, South Korea is responsible for responding to violations of the armistice that ended the Korean War. But during what U.S. Forces Korea spokesman David Oten calls a “general wartime scenario,” the top U.S. commander in South Korea would assume control of South Korea’s troops, as well as a scattering of other forces that compose the U.N. Command.

Oten would not say whether South Korea had consulted with the U.S. before announcing its plan to retaliate with airstrikes.

A spokesman for the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said South Korea is not required to discuss the matter with the U.S., though the two militaries are always sharing information.

“There was probably some ambiguity in the immediate aftermath of Yeonpyeong about the scope of force that the South Korean government might be able to consider,” said Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation in Washington. “I think the purpose of this (Mullen’s visit) was to try to iron some of that out.”

He said the only way airstrikes could be used effectively by South Korea would be by planning for the measure.

“Without that prior consultation, both sides would be left staring at each other, saying, ‘Can we do this? Should we do this?’ ” Snyder said. “This is territory that the two Koreas really haven’t been in for over half a century.”

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