Long-Standing Tensions Flare in Korea

A disputed maritime border. Long standing tensions. And Tuesday, a sharp escalation of hostilities. North and South Korea fired at each other for about an hour on an island that sits off a disputed border. The deadly skirmish raised fears of war between the two rival nations, once again spiking tension in the entire region. Plumes of smoke billowed from the island of 1,300 people but it was not immediately clear how much damage was incurred. Many residents were fleeing to the South Korean port of Incheon.

South Korea said North Korea fired artillery Tuesday toward the border between the two nations. Two South Korean marines were killed and 18 soldiers and civilians were wounded. South Korea had been conducting maritime drills, which the North called  “war maneuvers.” (CNN) The North accused the South of “reckless military provocation” for firing dozens of shells inside North Korean territory around the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. “The South Korean enemy, despite our repeated warnings, committed reckless military provocations of firing artillery shells into our maritime territory near Yeonpyeong island beginning at 1300,” the state-run KCNA news agency quoted it as saying.  The North will strike back if South Korea “dares to invade our territory by 0.001 mm,” it warned. (BBC)

“Houses and mountains are on fire and people are evacuating. You can’t see very well because of plumes of smoke,” a witness on the island told YTN Television before the shelling, which lasted about an hour before it ended. (Reuters) “I thought I would die,” said Lee Chun-OK, 54, an islander who said she was watching TV in her home when the shelling began. Suddenly, a wall and door collapsed. “I was really, really terrified,” she told The Associated Press after being evacuated to the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul, “and I’m still terrified.” (Toronto Star)

Tension has been running particularly high in the Korean peninsula after the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. Tuesday’s incident, however, is one of the most serious that has occurred in recent years. The hostilities come as North Korea is undergoing transition – the ailing and reclusive leader Kim Jong II is believed to be in the process of transferring power to his son Kim Jong Un. Some analysts believe upcoming internal changes have prompted North Korea to flex its military muscle in recent days. Tuesday’s violence was also preceded by the revelation of a North Korean uranium enrichment program.

Yeonpyeong Island has come under attack before. Last January, South Korea reported that the North had fired shells that fell in waters north of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border. North Korea wants that border redrawn farther south.

Over the past six decades, small-scale skirmishes have flared repeatedly along both land and sea borders as each state aims to reunify the peninsula according to its own terms and system of government. Deadly naval clashes occurred along the demarcation line in 1999, 2002 and 2009.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Korea became a divided nation, the capitalist South supported by the United States and its Western allies, and the  communist North an ally of the Soviet Union. Cold War tensions erupted into war 1950, devastating the peninsula and taking the lives of as many as 2 million people. The fighting ended with a truce, not a treaty, and settled little. Technically the two Koreas are still at war. Besides the border skirmishes, other incidents also have proven provocative. In 1968, North Korea dispatched commandos in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korea’s president. In 1983, a bombing linked to Pyongyang killed 17 high-level South Korean officials on a visit to Myanmar. In 1987, the North was accused of bombing a South Korean airliner.

South Korea said a North Korean torpedo last March sent the warship Cheonan to the bottom of the Yellow Sea off the Seoul-controlled island of Baengnyeong. The sinking, also in the border area, killed 46 South Korean sailors. South Korea was outraged by the incident. North Korea vehemently denied any responsibility, even after an internal investigating team blamed North Korea. The United Nations Security Council statement condemned the attack but stopped short of placing blame on the North.

South Korea put its military on high alert following Tuesday’s exchange of fire. But whether that will translate into further military action is impossible  to predict. Events in the past few months suggested a slight thawing of icy relations. North and South Korea had begun discussions on the possible resumption of reunions of family members separated by the Korean war and North Korea has requested military talks. In early September, the South offered food to the impoverished North for the first time in three years. Given the closed nature of North Korean politics, it’s hard to tell what changes the new leadership of Kim Jong Un will entail or whether re-engagement is on the table. Another wild card is the influence of China; some South Koreans fear a Chinese takeover in the event of a North Korean collapse. Some analysts viewed Tuesday’s exchange as North Korea flexing its military muscle in the light of its leadership transition. Others said it was related to the nuclear issue.

Washington accuses Pyongyang of running a secret uranium-based nuclear program. The United states, along with the two Koreas, Russia, Japan and China, have been involved in what is called the Six Party Talks. But those talks have been slow and arduous and in limbo since 2008. And after the revelation of the North Korean uranium enrichment facility a few days ago, the resumption of talks seemed in jeopardy. Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean denuclearization, said Tuesday’s hostilities will prove a further obstacle. (CNN)

Choi  Jin-wook, senior researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, said the North is “frustrated with Washington’s response to their uranium program and they think that Washington has almost given up on negotiations with North Korea. I think they realize they can’t expect anything from Washington or Seoul for several months, so I think they made the provocation,” Choi said. (CNN) “It’s a sign of North Korea’s increasing frustration,” Mr. Choi continued. “Washington has turned a deaf ear to the Pyongyang and North Korea saying, ‘Look here. We’re still alive. We can cause trouble. You can’t ignore us.’” Mr. Choi said North Korea had become frustrated over the Obama administration’s refusal to remove a broad range of sanctions against the regime for its continuing nuclear efforts. “They see that they can’t pressure Washington,” he said, “so they’ve taken South Korea hostage again… They’re in a desperate situation, and they want food immediately, not next year.” (New York Times)

Korean stocks traded in New York fell 4 per cent, led lower by a sharp sell-off in shares of companies like Korea Electric Power and steel producer Posco. Overall, major US stock market indexes fell more than 1 per cent as the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula added to worries about global economic conditions. The US dollar was up one percent against a basket of currencies as investors sought the safety of the greenback. The South Korean central bank, after an emergency meeting, said it planned to cooperate with the government to take measures to stabilize markets if necessary. Many traders expect South Korea’s financial markets to fall further when trading opens on Wednesday.

President Lee held a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul. Afterwards he said he had ordered the military to punish North Korea for its artillery attacks “through action,” not just words, saying it is important to stop the communist regime from contemplating additional provocation. “The provocation this time can be regarded as an invasion of South Korean territory. In particular, indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a grave matter,” he said. (BBC) Lee said that “indiscriminate attack on civilians can never be tolerated.” (CBC)

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper strongly condemned the artillery attack, calling it “the latest in a series of aggressive and provocative actions by North Korea, which continue to represent a grave threat to international security in northeast Asia.” Harper extended his condolences to the families of the two South Korean military officers killed in the attack and urged North Korea “to refrain from further reckless and belligerent actions and to abide by the Korean Armistice Agreement.” (CBC)

Last month, Canada announced it would adopt a “controlled engagement policy,” terminating all official bilateral contacts with North Korea, with the exception of those necessary to address regional security concerns and human rights.

Speaking to reporters outside the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence

Cannon said the government is closely monitoring the situation. “This is the second time this year that the North Korean regime has recklessly caused loss of life in South Korea through aggressive military actions [which] continue to pose a grave threat to the region and to the entire world.” (CBC) Cannon said it would be appropriate for the United Nations Security Council to get active on the file. Cannon said his office was in touch with the Canadian Embassy in Seoul, adding that no Canadians were in harm’s way. He walked away shortly after a reporter asked, “how much of a problem is it that Canada is not on the security council?” “It’s not a problem at all,” he said before walking into the house. (Toronto Star) In the Commons, NDP Leader Jack Layton was applauded when he said he was sure he was speaking on behalf of all MP’s when he called for the two sides to “ensure that there is no further escalation.” He urged Harper to expend “strenuous” diplomatic efforts to quell the dispute. (Toronto Star)

US President Barack Obama called the incident an “outrageous, provocative act” by Pyongyang.” (BBC) He was speaking ahead of an expected telephone call to President Lee Myung-bak. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called on North Korea to “halt its belligerent action,” adding that the US was “firmly committed” to South Korea’s defence. (BBC) “Everybody involved is stunned by North Korea’s provocative actions,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing. “We are working again within an established framework with our partners so we have a deliberate approach to this. We are not going to respond willy nilly.” (Toronto Star)

Pentagon officials said none of the more than 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea were involved in the military drills. Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said US troops have participated in the annual exercise in the past, but an earlier plan to have US Marines participate in a landing maneuver with the South Koreans didn’t work out because of American scheduling issues.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack and conveyed his concerns to the Security Council’s president. Ban called the attack “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War,” spokesman Martin Nesirky said. (CBC)

“It’s unbelievable,” said Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University. “Today’s news proves that North Korea, under provoked conditions, shot these South Korean islands. It’s reckless provocation. They want to make a big bang and force the negotiations back into their favor. It’s the oldest trick.” (Reuters)

There was more condemnation of North Korea from Russia, EU and the UK, although China – the North’s main ally – refused to apportion blame. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said that both countries should “do more to contribute peace… What’s imperative now is to restart six-party talks as soon as possible,” Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing. (BBC) “We have hope the relevant parties will do more to contribute to the peace and stability of  the Korean peninsula… The situation needs to be verified,” Mr. Hong said, adding that “China is willing to stay in close communication with the relevant parties concerning the Korean nuclear issue.” (New York Times)

Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, said he had ordered ministers to prepare for any eventuality. “I ordered them to make preparations so that we can react firmly, should any unexpected event occur.” (BBC)

Russia’s foreign minister warned of a “colossal danger,” and said those behind the attack carried a huge responsibility. (BBC)

“It brings us one step closer to the brink of war,” said Peter Beck, a research fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, “because I don’t think the North would seek war by intention, but war by accident, something spiraling out of control has always been my fear.” (Toronto Star)

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