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November 24, 2010

North Korea attack on island causes international alarm

Exploding shell - picture courtesy of KBS World  

The BBC’s John Sudworth explains how the cross-border clash developed

North Korea’s shelling of an island in South Korea near a disputed sea border has drawn international condemnation.

US President Barack Obama said he was “outraged” by the attack on Yeonpyeong island. It was also denounced by Russia, Japan and European countries.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called it “one of the gravest incidents since the Korean War” and urged restraint on both sides.

South Korea returned fire and threatened missile strikes if there were “further provocations”.

South Korea’s military had been carrying out an exercise nearby, but it denies opening hostilities by firing towards the North.


 

Yeonpyeong island

  • Lies 3km (2 miles) from disputed Yellow Sea border and 12km from North Korean coast
  • Houses military installations, a permanent marine detachment and a small civilian population
  • Rich fishing grounds in surrounding waters
  • Scene of inter-Korean naval clashes in 1999 and 2002
  • In the 2002 exchange of fire, 13 northern sailors and five southern sailors were killed

Two South Korean marines died when dozens of artillery shells landed on the island – most of them hitting a military base. Both soldiers and civilians were wounded.

The South fired back some 80 shells. Casualties on the northern side are unknown.

In Washington, President Obama called South Korea an important ally. “We strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance,” he told ABC News.

“We want to make sure all the parties in the region recognise that this is a serious and ongoing threat that needs to be dealt with”, Mr Obama said.

He called specifically on China to communicate to North Koreans “that there are a set of international rules they need to abide by”.

The US state department vowed to forge a “measured and unified” stance with major powers. The Pentagon said it would co-ordinate its response with the South Korean military.

The US has 28,000 troops stationed in the South.

South Korea’s stock marker opened sharply lower on Wednesday, with the benchmark stock index falling 3.3% in the opening minutes of trading.

‘Colossal danger’

UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was “deeply concerned by the escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula”.

“The secretary general condemns the attack and calls for immediate restraint,” he added.

Map showing Yeonpyeong and the disputed border between North and South Korea

The current president of the Security Council, British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, said he was in touch with other members about what to do next. No country has formally requested an emergency session.

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

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he had ordered ministers to “make preparations so that we can react firmly, should any unexpected event occur”.


 

Analysis

Jonathan Marcus BBC diplomatic correspondent 


Nobody needed any reminder of the volatility of the relations between North and South Korea, nor of the sensitivity of their disputed maritime border.

In March, a South Korean warship was sunk by an explosion and an investigation indicated strongly that the North was responsible.

The shelling of Yeonpyeong fits into the same pattern. From the North Korean viewpoint, this is about establishing deterrence over the South and defending its interests.

But it is also a wider demonstration to the world of the North’s power and an indication of some kind of political transition.

The EU and the UK also condemned the North, but 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 to peace”.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called the incident “an invasion of South Korean territory”, and warned that future provocations could be met with “enormous retaliation”, including missile strikes on North Korean positions.

North Korea’s military command blamed South Korea for the incident.

“The South Korean enemy, despite our repeated warnings, committed reckless military provocations of firing artillery shells into our maritime territory near Yeonpyeong island beginning 1300 (0400 GMT),” the state-run KCNA news agency quoted it as saying.

The North will strike back if South Korea “dares to invade our sea territory by 0.001mm”, it warned.


 

North Korea: Timeline 2010

26 March: South Korean warship, Cheonan, sinks, killing 46 sailors

20 May: Panel says a North Korean torpedo sank the ship; Pyongyang denies involvement

July-September: South Korea and US hold military exercises; US places more sanctions on Pyongyang

29 September: North holds rare party congress seen as part of father-to-son succession move

29 October: Troops from North and South Korea exchange fire across the land border

12 November: North Korea shows US scientist new – undeclared – uranium enrichment facility

There have been occasional cross-border incidents since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty in 1953, but the latest comes at a time of rising regional tension.

North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-il is thought to be ill and trying to ensure the succession of his youngest son.

The BBC’s John Sudworth in Seoul says the heir apparent may be trying to build a reputation with the country’s hardline military elite – suggesting a period of further provocation towards the South.

On Saturday, it emerged that Pyongyang had shown off what it claimed was a new uranium enrichment facility to an American scientist.

The move prompted the US to rule out the resumption of six-party talks on nuclear disarmament that Pyongyang abandoned two years ago.

The western maritime border, also known as the Northern Limit Line, has been the scene of numerous clashes in the past.

In March, a South Korean warship went down near the border with the loss of 46 lives. International investigators say a North Korean torpedo sank the ship, although Pyongyang has denied any role in the incident.

Graphic

Only the Koreans can end their conflict
Nov 23, 2010 18:10 EST

For a generation, the arc of international events has been mainly positive — the Cold War concluded, the Germanys reunited, apartheid is over. But a few conflicts refuse to end, and one became worse today as North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery fire, killing two South Korean soldiers. It’s not yet clear how the incident began. Presumably the United States, which has substantial forces in South Korea, Japan and Guam, is at the moment watching closely.

South Korea is prosperous, reasonably free, a budding democracy, and supported by the most powerful government on earth. North Korea is impoverished, repressed and alone. Nearly all North Koreans would benefit immensely if the wall separating their country and South Korea was the world’s next wall to tumble. So why does the conflict between these two states refuse to end?

North Korea is the last truly closed society. The old Soviet Union, and then Mao’s China, were able to keep their populations cowed by blocking nearly all outside information, then depicting the larger world as a nightmarish place. Once Russians of the 1970s and 1980s, and Chinese of the 1970s and 1980s, knew what the larger world was like, the clock began to tick on their nations’ dictatorships. Today’s global information flow is far from ideal, but North Korea is the last nation in which the average person takes a big risk by trying to find out what’s happening in the world. This allows North Korea to be the last secret-police state, and means little internal pressure against its corrupt, paranoid autocracy.

North Korea needs endless conflict for its ruling family to stay in power. Both Germanys wanted their conflict to end. South Korea wants the Koreas conflict to end. The United States, Russian Federation, China and Japan want the Koreas conflict to end. Kim Jong-Il does not want the conflict to end — without it, he and his son would be tossed from power. Conflicts are hard to end when one major player (think Hamas) has a self-interest stake in endless misery for the many combined with power and riches for a few.

There was no Korean War treaty. A 1954 armistice stopped the shooting, but no peace treaty ever was signed. This is deceptively important. Even former dictatorships, such as imperial Japan, respected the peace treaties they signed: while international agreements including the 1975 Helsinki Accords, on human rights, helped begin to dissolve the old Soviet system. No peace treaty to tie the knot on the Korean War exists, and the belligerents have long since stopped trying for one. This means no liberalizing treaty requirements bind Pyongyang, while the fact that the state of war technically never closed helps Kim Il-sung, and now Kim Jong-Il, maintain an internal condition of xenophobia.

The United States didn’t keep its word. The 1994 “Agreed Framework,” basically a very fancy memo, said North Korea would stop trying to make weapons-grade fissile materials in return for large amounts of oil (basically, foreign aid) from the United States and U.S. financing of a light-water power reactor (the civilian kind that generates electricity but doesn’t have much military value). Washington did not follow through, and after George W. Bush in 2002 proclaimed North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” the agreement essentially expired. Subsequent hot air from Washington, from Republicans and Democrats alike, has lacked credibility in Pyongyang.

(North Korea continues to try to build a light-water nuclear reactor on its own; probably this isn’t threatening, but since North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty after Bush began shaking his fist at Pyongyang, it’s hard to be sure. The centrifuges North Korea recently showed to a Stanford University professor might be for civilian power — but on-site inspectors are the only way to verify that.)

North Korea is not involved in international trade. Say what you will about globalization, in almost every case, it has made nations more open. At least since the Leipzig Trade Fair, which began nearly a thousand years ago, trade has caused different cultures to learn about each other, fear each other less, and generally, been a liberalizing force. Because hardly any nations do business with North Korea, nothing dilutes its xenophobia.

Family rule. Dictatorship based on lineage was the norm across the world during the Dark Ages, and in Europe as recently as the 19th century. Now it has vanished in most of the world — but still thrives in North Korea. Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, had the title Eternal Leader and remains, on paper, the head of state. Kim Jong-Il possessed just one qualification for office — he was Kim Il-sung’s son. Kim Jong-un possesses only one known qualification — he is the son of Kim Jong-Il.

Not only does the crooked ruling family live in extreme luxury while North Koreans starve: here is a satellite view of Kim Jong-Il’s mansion, plus water slide.

Family political rule based on oppression is essentially organized crime (think Cuba). But the awful reality of family rule in North Korea will not be changed by international action. North Korean patriots must be the ones to end it.

Nor can the United States, or the United Nations, or the six-party apparatus resolve the Koreas conflict. Only the Koreans themselves — North and South — can accomplish that. But a useful first step would be meaningful engagement with Pyongyang. Decades of bluster haven’t accomplished anything, as today’s events show.

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