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South Korea on Alert for Possible North Korea Action After Israel-Hamas Conflict

FILE - A South Korean army soldier stands guard inside a military guard post at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Oct. 14, 2022.
FILE - A South Korean army soldier stands guard inside a military guard post at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, Oct. 14, 2022.

South Korea is under a heightened alert, assessing how the widening crisis in the Middle East could impact its national security after the unprecedented attack that Palestinian militant group Hamas launched against Israel.

South Korean National Security Adviser Cho Tae-yong is examining possible impacts that the Hamas-Israel conflict could have on South Korean security as he is being briefed on the situation, said the office of President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday.

The Hamas attack against Israel on Saturday, the deadliest assault it experienced in 50 years, appeared to be expanding into a full-scale war on the third day of the conflict.

The Israeli military has mobilized 300,000 reservists Monday as it moves on a full offensive in response to the surprise attack by ground, air, and sea by Hamas. Israel is also imposing a complete blockade of the Palestinian controlled Gaza Strip.

South Korea condemned Hamas for its attack on Israel and expressed deep concern about civilian casualties.

The rapidly growing conflict elevated South Korea's concern over a possible U.S. shift in priority to the Middle East and as a result, diminished support for deterring North Korea, according to analysts.

Cho Han-Bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank in Seoul, said if the Palestinian-Israel conflict prolongs to the point that it requires the U.S. to deploy significant military capacity to the region, deterring North Korea could lower priority for the U.S.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center's Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy project, said U.S. extended deterrence could potentially be affected if "a military contingency" arose in the Middle East that demands significant U.S. military support.

"As the U.S. carrier group and emergency military aid to Israel highlight — events in the Middle East and in Europe, where the Ukraine war resulted in increased U.S. commitments in Europe indefinitely — are pulling the U.S. in directions that create tensions with the idea of Asia/China as the top priority and challenge, as spelled out in the White House national security strategy," said Manning.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Sunday that he ordered the Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group, which includes an aircraft carrier and guided-missile destroyers, to move to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik, who took office Saturday, called for the military's full readiness against North Korea as he visited the Army's 1st Infantry Division near the inter-Korean border Monday.

Evans Revere, who served as the U.S. State Department's acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said, that he does not foresee any negative impact on ROK [Republic of Korea] security from the attacks.

"The U.S. remains vigilant and firmly committed to [South] Korea's security, the U.S. deterrent remains viable and strong, and the attacks by Hamas will only serve as a reminder to the U.S. and the ROK of the need to prepare for a wide range of contingencies," said Revere.

According to Cho, North Korea could also forge solidarity with Hamas and countries that support the group in countering the U.S.

"North Korea needs to form solidarity [with other countries] as it is isolated internationally from sanctions and its talks with the U.S. are at a standstill," said Cho.

"It seems to have found an exit [to its isolation] through [its warming ties with] Russia" that stands against the U.S.

"If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could form an anti-American front line" with the Middle Eastern countries and groups that oppose the U.S., his foreign policy "could pick up momentum," Cho said.

North Korea's relations with Russia have been growing into close military cooperation as rail traffic across the borders of the two countries surged, indicative of possible arms transfers from Pyongyang to Moscow, after Kim's meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Russia in September.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday blamed the Palestinian-Israel conflict on the failed Middle Eastern policy of the U.S. as he called for a return to peace.

North Korea has yet to release an official statement on the conflict.

North Korea is probably seeing that the conflict serves its advantage, said Jang Ji-Hyang, the director of Middle East and North Africa Center at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Jang said an opportunity to sell weapons and make foreign income increases for North Korea if anti-Israel militant groups like Hamas launch armed attacks.

Since the 1980s, North Korea has been providing illicit arms to Iran, a key supporter of Hamas, as well as the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has also launched attacks on Israel.

The U.S. has designated both Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups.

Christy Lee contributed to this report.