North Korean attack: Why South Korea is wise to stay cool

The North Korean attack on a South Korean island not only killed soldiers but injured civilians. The provocation comes 60 years after the North invaded the South. What is the North's aim this time?

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Plumes of smoke rise from Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23. North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells onto the island, killing two people, setting homes ablaze and triggering an exchange of fire as the South's military went on top alert.

Sixty years ago last July, North Korea invaded South Korea – only to be pushed back, leaving neither war nor peace on that Asian peninsula.

On Tuesday, North Korea rained artillery down on a small South Korean island, killing two soldiers and injuring several civilians living there. What was South Korea's push-back this time? It fired back with small rockets, perhaps killing several North Koreans.

This tit-for-tat military incident again revealed the unfulfilled desire of North Korea's leaders to conquer the South. Short of another invasion, however, the regime of Kim Jong il can afford to wage only small battles to make a point of some sort even as he also builds up a treasure of nuclear weapons – weapons that he can't really use without also suffering a massive counter strike by the US.

Ending this long stalemate will require that Kim, or his newly designated heir, Kim Jong Un, accept that the only path to a reunited Korea is by peaceful means and consensus.

Having a moribund economy, however, North Korea is in no position to cut a good deal for reunification. Its only hope? To somehow get the US to pull out its forces from South Korea and then the North can march in – or at least intimidate Seoul into submission.

In a nutshell, that's North Korea's strategy. When I visited there in 1992, it was making overtures to the world to open ever so slightly. But then Kim discovered that doing so might enlighten his people about their economic plight compared to South Korea, causing an uprising. The hermit kingdom is still largely closed.

Meanwhile, China, North Korea's closest ally, prefers the status quo and keeps its neighbor supplied with fuel. Beijing's leaders even claim that the 1950-53 Korean War was a victory. For what isn't clearly stated. For the US, the war was a clear victory – to contain communism in Asia. And that cold-war strategy lives on with the two Koreas.

Waiting and containing are the fall-back options, as they have been for 60 years.

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