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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

North Korea Fires Coastal Artillery at South Korean Island of Yeonpyeong

Following Thread from our Friends at KGS Nightwatch

On 23 November (Korean Standard Time), North Korean coastal artillery fired dozens of rounds at a village on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island (aka, Y-P Do). Four South Korean soldiers were wounded and multiple houses were set afire.

South Korean artillery returned fire and scrambled combat aircraft. The armed forces are on high alert and promised to respond strongly to any further shelling, according to the National Defense Ministry.

Comment: The shelling is ex officio an act of war and starts another round of crisis. YP-Do is one of the five South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, northwest of Seoul. It is within easy artillery range from the North Korean coast.

The few facts suggest this is another provocation, like the sinking of the corvette Chonan in March, to show the temerity of the heir apparent. He supposedly was the brilliant mastermind of the sinking, to demonstrate his leadership worthiness. His handlers apparently intend to use these kinds of provocation to be the signature of Kim Jung-un's leadership so that the Allies do not try to take advantage of his youth and inexperience, presumably.

Ironically, earlier during the Watch, news services reported North Korea offered to negotiate the termination of one of its nuclear arms programs, most likely the now terminated plutonium program.

The sequence of three significant developments in 72 hours suggests a plan to switch international attention back to North Korea. The North's behavior during the long nuclear crisis that began in 1993 is punctuated with provocative spikes of this nature. They occurred whenever the leadership judged North Korea was not receiving the attention they thought it deserved and when their initiatives were not generating the cash and aid commitments they expected and which they need for regime survival.

The periods of tension have been of varying duration, but they invariably ended with talks and promises of aid and cooperation. That is the usual patttern.

Occurring just two days after South Korea declared the Sunshine Policy a failure, the shelling also probably is part of the North's response to South Korea's official end of its conciliatory engagement policy and programs. The message is that the North will reciprocate hard-line actions for hard-line actions, which is the customary symmetrical formulation in the North's threats. But in this competition, the North can be annoying, but is too weak in every respect to be a match for South Korea and will not have Chinese backing for any offensive provocations.

Thus at a time when the US has committed to expand the war in Afghanistan and China is busy building is sphere of influence in Southeast Asia, the North has sent reminders about a very different and vastly more lethal war that is still possible in northeast Asia, despite being increasingly pointless.

The risk of large scale fighting remains low because North Korea lacks the energy - human and otherwise - to sustain it. The North can start a conflict and kill lots of people, but has no ability to sustain a war; cannot defend itself or its population from an overwhelming Allied counterattack and will lose everything built by Kim Il sung since 1953 in a war. Most importantly, the highest leaders know it.

However, the risk of more shelling remains high for now. After the shelling stops, meetings with the UN Command at Panmunjom should clarify what the North wants now.

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