The Korean peninsula is on high military alert after a 21-minute gun battle between north and south that will likely delay talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
The skirmish Saturday, in which a South Korean patrol boat was sunk and at least four South Koreans killed, came just as Seoul was wrapping up its hosting of the World Cup, which ended yesterday.
Analysts say the clash in the Yellow Sea may have reflected Northern envy at the South's pride and success in hosting the soccer championship or Pyongyang's fears that the games, some of which were broadcast in the North, could cause further discontent in a totalitarian country already beset by severe economic troubles.
Or, observers theorize, the incident could have been a tactic to delay talks with Washington, which last week signaled it was ready to visit Pyongyang. Still another theory centers on fishing rights.
The clash certainly deals another blow to the Sunshine Policy of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung. Increasingly controversial, the policy, by which the South provides the North with funds, food, and sundry aid, while asking nothing in return, has sharply divided conservative and liberal parties here. Conservatives maintain that North Korea is a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist state that has never, and would never, consider revising its mandate of opposing the South.
Reflecting on Saturday's incident, Lee Dong Bok, a retired member of the National Assembly and former negotiator in inter-Korean talks, said: "We have seen a pattern over and over of North Korea reverting to hostility after a quiet period. It's shortsighted in the extreme sense that North Korea would change its essential mandate. It's not equipped to do that because it is anachronistic and weak and vulnerable."
In recent years, the regime of Kim Jong Il, labeled as part of an "axis of evil" by President Bush, has used its volatility as a strategy in outside relations.
If previous patterns of North Korean behavior are any indicator, the incident signals either that the North is not ready to open talks with Washington or that the state is using its unpredictability and potential threat as a form of leverage to get a better deal once talks begin.
Some analysts feel the internal political or economic situation in North Korea is so fragile that any policy of change could fracture the system of authority and trigger a crisis such as a mass exodus of refugees. In the past, North Korea has created incidents to delay talks about rapprochement or reconciliation with the US or South Korea that might bring disturbing internal changes.
"Pyongyang is not in a position to prefer a hasty opening and radical reform because [these changes] are against the North's principle of self-reliance," notes Huh Moon-young, a research fellow at the Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
The self-reliance Mr. Huh refers to is the so-called "Juche policy" a form of communal cult worship of leader Kim Jong Il, and before that, Kim's father, Kim Il Sung. About five years ago, the North dropped its references to Marxism-Leninism, in an effort to develop more fully the Juche policy, which depends on high levels of control of the population.
Pyongyang, now lacking its former ties with the USSR, has suffered at least five or more years of economic crisis. Its agriculture system is in shambles, with repeated bad harvests. North Korea's power grid is also reportedly in a state of decay. Moreover, despite Kim Jong Il's semisecret visit to Shanghai last year, when he viewed the Chinese stock market and the glittering skyscrapers built by his socialist neighbor, and despite rumors of Kim's desire for reform no serious openings for reform have ensued.
"The situation is so absurd that any opening could topple them," a longtime European diplomat argues.
As wounded South Korean sailors entered hospitals in Seoul, US and South Korean officials placed blame for the incident on the North. The North claims the South opened fire first.
Spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of Defense, Lt. Gen. Lee Sang Hee, said two North Korean warships accompanied by a small group of fishing boats intruded as far as three miles south of the Northern Limit Line which separates North and South waters.
After a 25-minute verbal exchange through loudspeakers, in which the South demanded that the North retreat, one of the North's warships fired a rocket launcher, which, according to Southern Defense officials, sank the South Korean patrol boat. There are no known North Korean casualties.
The incident may have been triggered by fishermen, as was a 1999 confrontation.
The North has never recognized boundary lines in the Yellow Sea, drawn up by the United Nations Command after the Korean War in 1953. Pyongyang frequently sends its fishing boats south of the border to catch blue flower fish, and crabs.
But in June 1999, over several days, a fleet of North crab boats, escorted by North patrol boats, ventured far past the lines. In previous such forays, the boats would hurry back to Northern waters when challenged. But this time they did not. A challenge by the South's Navy ended in the sinking of a North Korean torpedo boat with a crew of between 20 and 30. Later research by South Korean officials led to the view that the 1999 provocation was a result of a new and drastically higher crab quota by North officials. Crab is a commodity that is traded for hard currency by the cash-starved North.
At the time, the 1999 incident put most of North Asia on high military alert. It was only the intervention of Kim Jong Il of North Korea, requesting that no shooting by his side take place, that brought the crisis to an end. But experts like author Don Oberdorfer, in his "Two Koreas," point out that the incident caused a delay of six months in the eventual summit and beginning of rapprochement between North and South.