North Korea escalated the confrontation in the Yellow Sea a significant notch on Tuesday with an artillery barrage on a small South Korean island that set homes ablaze, killed at least two South Korean marines, and injured at least 16 others, including civilians.
The barrage was primarily against South Korean marines conducting exercises in the area but was at the same time the most severe attack on a civilian population center since the Korean War ended in an uneasy truce in 1953. It was, however, by no means the bloodiest episode between the two Koreas since then.
The fact that North Koreans did not not hesitate to fire on a civilians came as something of a shock to some South Koreans as they watched television footage showing black plumes of smoke rising from the village on the small island just south of the Northern Limit Line below which the South tries to ban North Korean vessels.
For South Koreans crowded around television sets, the overriding question, as expressed by office worker Lee Yong-suk, was whether the flareup would spread into a much wider confrontation in which North Korean gunners could intimidate the huge populace around Seoul and the nearby west coast port of Incheon.
“People are shocked,” she said. “People are dying. It’s a kind of war, ” she went on, giving a sense of mounting casualties not borne out by news reports.
South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak mingled toughness with calls for calm that in a sense reflected South Korea’s frustration over how to respond to a barrage that began around 2:30 in the afternoon and did not end until three hours later. All told, North Korea fired about 100 artillery shells, reportedly from positions on land several miles north of the island. South Korean gunners fired 80 shells in response, but what damage they caused was not clear.
Mr. Lee summarized the significance of the attack on a village of farmers’ and fishermen who had been accustomed to living in peace with the belief that South Korean forces patroling the waters around them would ensure survival.
This time, he said, “the provocation” was “an invasion of South Korean territory” in which “indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a grave matter.”
He promised “stern retaliation” if North Korea attacked again, but just how far he is prepared to go is completely unclear.
Who started it?
The pretext for Tuesday’s attack was a South Korean military exercise in the area around the island, about 50 miles west of Incheon.
North Korea accused South Korean forces of instigating the attack by firing first and with intruding upon its territorial waters. That second allegation reflected North Korea’s challenge to the Northern Limit Line – the reason for a series of bloody naval battles in the area climaxed by the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March, with a loss of the lives of 46 sailors and one diver who drowned in a rescue attempt.
With the exercises scheduled to go on for another week, the question was whether South Korean forces would continue to be deployed so close to the Northern Limit Line with North Korea and the island or would pull back.
Either way, analysts noted, Lee would be under fire by critics. Conservatives would accuse him of collapsing under North Korean pressure if he canceled the exercises or even pulled them out of the area. Leftists would say he risked the lives of South Koreans – and a second Korean War – if he deliberately dared the North Koreans to confront South Korean forces by continuing military drills there.
This was an attack that involved citizens
South Koreans appeared far more indignant over the attack on Tuesday than they ever were by the sinking of the Cheonan, split in two by a torpedo fired by a North Korean midget submarine. South Koreans tended at the time to view that episode as an isolated incident that involved only military forces, not civilians.
The attack this time was much more serious than naval clashes for one basic reason. "It was the first time they attacked us on land since the Korean War," said Lee Jong-min, professor at Yonsei University and ambassador on security affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
No one thinks the attack could have been at the orders of a regional commander acting on his own. "Kim Jong-il has to have ordered it," said Robert Collins, retired intelligence analyst for US command here.
Carefully planned follow-up to nuclear revelations?
South Korean analysts saw the attack as a carefully planned follow-up to revelation of North Korea’s new enriched uranium facility, nearing completion at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
A team of several Americans, including nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker, visited the facility earlier this month, returning to say that North Korean engineers have already fabricated 2,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium and are well on the way to making it operational.
By showing off its new nuclear program and then by attacking on land, says Mr. Choi, North Korea “believes it can force South Korea and the US to come to negotiations.”
Few here believe North Korea would negotiate away its nuclear program. Rather, the North’s goal is assumed to be a peace treaty in place of the armistice that ended the Korean War and withdrawal of all US forces from the Korean peninsula.
South Korean analysts appear puzzled, though, as to the best response.
“We have too many things to protect,” says Kim Tae-woo, senior fellow at the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses. “We have to prevent instability to our economy. We have to worry about our stock market.”
He said South Korea’s military command was “still figuring what to do,” while people “worry about the possibility of more shells.”
By the end of the afternoon, however, after the incident was over, many believed that this too would pass.
“We do not want escalation,” says Mr. Choi. “There will be tension for a period.” But then, he predicts, “there will be another clash.”