Tuesday, November 23, 2010

North Korea Fires Artillery Into South Korea, Which Returns Fire

The long simmering Korean border was rocked by artillery fire earlier today as North Korea bombarded an island claimed by South Korea, setting several areas ablaze and killing two South Korean soldiers and injuring 18 soldiers and civilians. South Korea responded with artillery fire of its own.
South Korean artillery units returned fire after the North’s shells struck South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 p.m., said Mr. Kwon, adding that the North also fired numerous rounds into the Yellow Sea. Television footage showed large plumes of black smoke spiraling from the island, and news reports said dozens of houses were on fire.

The official North Korean news agency said in a brief statement Tuesday night that the South had started the fight when it “recklessly fired into our sea area.”

The South Korean deputy minister of defense, Lee Yong-geul, acknowledged that artillery units had been firing test shots on Tuesday afternoon close to the North Korean coast, from a battery on the South Korean island of Paeknyeongdo. But he denied Pyongyang’s charge that the shots had crossed the sea border.While skirmishes between the two countries have not been uncommon in recent years, the clash appeared to have been the most serious in decades and came amid heightened tensions over the North’s nuclear program. An American nuclear scientist who recently visited the North said he had been shown a secret and modern enrichment facility.

A spokesman for President Lee Myung-bak said Mr. Lee gathered his security-related ministers and senior aides at a crisis meeting in the underground situation room at the Blue House, the presidential office and residence.

“We will not in any way tolerate this,” Mr. Lee’s chief spokesman, Hong Sang-pyo, said after the meeting. “Any further provocation will get an immediate and strong response and the South Korean military will strongly retaliate if there is anything further.”
The North continues testing the patience of the South and seeing what it can get away with ahead of ongoing talks to curb the North's nuclear ambitions.

Video shot of the attack:

South Korea says that they were carrying out typical military drills and were test firing weapons to the West - away from North Korea, when North Korea opened fire.

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak called for "enormous retaliation" against the North and consider this an act of war - the invasion of South Korean territory.
Hours after North Korea's deadly artillery attacks Tuesday, South Korea's president said "enormous retaliation" is needed to stop Pyongyang's incitement, but international diplomats urgently appealed for restraint.

"The provocation this time can be regarded as an invasion of South Korean territory," President Lee Myung-bak said at the headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff here, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
He's under tremendous pressure militarily and politically to respond with force, but I expect the diplomats to cool things down. That will make it tougher for the South Korean president politically, but will avert a wider conflict for now.

Of course, that very aversion to war means that the North will see this as yet another sign that their strategy of provocation works and will continue pressing their luck until the South does eventually respond.

As it is, the two sides exchanged artillery fire for several hours after the North began firing on the island. We're lucky that the fighting didn't spread to other sectors along the DMZ. It's little wonder that the international markets got spooked by the news and the news focus is on the crisis on the Korean peninsula.

For further news, check out the ongoing blog coverage at memeorandum. There is some musings that the attack was an indication of the power transfer from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un - using the incident as a prelude to consolidating power, but I don't think that we would see any concrete transfer until after Jong Il is dead. Moreover, if this was truly the reason for the incident, then Jong Un is just as mad as his father and grandfather before him.

Still more video showing the North Koreans firing on civilian areas. At least 60 homes were damages in the artillery barrage:

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