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North Korea – One provocation too far?
By Thanapathi
Tensions in the Korean Peninsula reached an unprecedented level this week when the North fired artillery shells at the island of Yeonpyeong, near its border with the South killing two marines people and dramatically raising tensions between American-allied South Korea and the nuclear-armed North.
Commentators have suggested a number of reasons why the North launched this attack, chief among them being the transfer of power to Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the country’s ailing leader, Kim Jong-il, and to the chronic food shortage in the problem.

The North is known to raise the stakes when it needs to negotiate concessions from its foes.
There are fears that last week’s attack by the North, called the worst incident since the end of the Korean War in 1953, may escalate into a greater conflict in the Peninsula rather than taking the usual path of sabre rattling as in previous cases.
US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have agreed to stage joint naval exercises as a first response to North Korea’s shelling.

The exercises will include the US aircraft carrier George Washington.
The South Korean government also announced plans to increase the number of troops and heavy weapons on Yeonpyeong Island.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak accepted the resignation of his defence minister, Kim Tae-young who tended his resignation in May after criticism over the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, in March, also blamed on North Korea.
Tensions between the two Koreas were already strained when the North sank a naval vessel on March 26, 2010 that killed dozens of South Korean sailors which at that time was considered as the worst incident since end of the War.
The 1,200-tonne Cheonan was on a routine patrol mission in the waters near the Koreas’ maritime border when an explosion ripped the sturdy frigate in two.
Fifty-eight sailors were rescued; 46 others perished. Later investigations confirmed that the ship was destroyed by a Torpedo fired by a North Korean Submarine.

Unlike the Cheonan incident that happened in disputed waters, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last week is a far worse provocation since it would mark the first military action on South Korean soil since the end of the Korean War nearly 60 years ago.

Limited options
Previously South Korea and the US have had limited options against a nuclear armed North in the face of grave provocations such as the sinking of the Cheonan.
However, this time around the North may have gone one step too far by attacking a South Korean military base on the Yeonpyeong Island.
North Korea remains one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world.

Since the mid 1990’ s the US and Japan has led the way to impose biting sanctions against the reclusive North to curtail its nuclear programme.
Economic and military sanctions have had a limited outcome because the autocratic regime in the North is propped up by the Chinese who for their own geopolitical reasons prefer to maintain the status quo rather than allowing the Communist North unify with US ally South Korea.

Succession woes
Many commentators have noted that the increase in North Korean aggression could be related to the leadership transfer which is currently under way.
Kim Jung-Un the 26-year-old son of the current leader Kim Jong Il is marked to be the nest leader.
Though promoted to a four star general early this year the young Kim Jung-Un has no credentials to cement his claim to leadership.
One of the major factors of gaining credibility as a leader in the North is to prove one’s military prowess.
There are similarities between the current happenings and the 1980’s when Kim Jong Il was being groomed to succeed his father. “When Kim Jong-Il was appointed successor to his father Kim Il-Sung, a similar sort of legitimisation process took place in which Kim Jong-Il was responsible for many of the actions in the 1980 s - such as the Korean Air 858 explosion in 1987, when North Korean agents planted a bomb in the plane which had taken off from Baghdad. The agents got off in Abu Dhabi, and the plane exploded over the Sea of Andaman, killing all 115 aboard. And in 1983, North Korean terrorists killed about half of the South Korean cabinet while it was on a state visit to Burma,” said Lee Chang an expert on Korean affairs at the University of Yale.

North Korean gamble
The North Koreans are known for their hard
bargaining strategies.
At the height of a famine in the late 1990s, the North started its nuclear programme which was seen as a bailout from its own enemies who would go to extraordinary lengths to stall the progress of the North to build a nuclear device.
Food and other economic aid was delivered to the North on the promise that it would stop nuclear material enrichment.
After many years of playing hardball, obtaining aid that kept its dictatorial regime in power the North eventually did produce a nuclear bomb.

China factor
Though five nations have been negotiating with the North Koreans over their nuclear programme, the only country that has a significant influence on the hermit kingdom is China. For years China has been both a conduit to engage the North and an impediment to enforcing stricter sanctions against the country.
China sees North Korea, however fragile its regime maybe, as a strategic partner against the expansion of US interest in East Asia.
A unified Korea would bring US troops to the border of China.
South Korea with 28,000 and Japan with 50,000 US troops are both traditional foes of the Chinese and would be a impediment in Chinese expansion in the region.
China, however, is under pressure to curtail aggression by its North Korean ally.
Rogue actions by the North have come to reflect Chinese inaction.
In the wake of North Korean shelling last week Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, said that Beijing opposed any provocative military behaviour by either side on the Korean peninsula, once again proving that the Chinese are unwilling to take a tougher stance against their Korean allies.
Irrational as it may seem, North Korea usually has a reason for its erratic actions.
It can either be to prop up a young leader who needs to showcase his “toughness” before assuming the mantle of leadership or it could be to obtain an advantage to negotiate concessions from the international community.
In the past such provocations have helped North Korea get what it wants.
The next few weeks will reveal whether it has pushed its luck too far this time around.

Timeline of latest Korea standoff

SEOUL (AFP) - A deadly attack by North Korea on a South Korean island near their disputed border this week sent tensions on the peninsula soaring and set alarm bells ringing around the world.
Following are some of the key events since the crisis began:

Nov 23: Nuclear-armed North Korea fires a barrage of artillery shells on to a South Korean island near their disputed Yellow Sea border in the first such strike since the 1950-53 war
- Two marines and two civilians are killed and 18 people are wounded in the bombardment of the fishing and garrison island of Yeonpyeong, as residents are sent fleeing
- The attack fuels anxiety about the intentions of the unpredictable communist state, particularly after the disclosure of an apparently operational uranium enrichment plant -- a second potential way of building a nuclear bomb
- Most major powers condemn the North Korean attack, with the noticeable exception of Pyongyang’s sole major ally Beijing, which merely voiced its “concern” at developments

Nov 24: The US and South Korea announce plans for four days of war games in the Yellow Sea starting Sunday
- US President Barack Obama telephones South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-Bak telling him Washington stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Seoul
- South Korea suspends shipments of flood aid to North
- The US-led UN Command, which oversees the Korean armistice, calls for talks with North Korea but Pyongyang rejects the request
- The foreign minister of China, which is facing pressure from Seoul, Washington and their allies to rein in Pyongyang, cancels a planned trip to South Korea
- Scores of South Korean protesters burn the North Korean flag and call for revenge

Nov 25: South Korea’s defence minister Kim Tae-Young resigns amid strong criticism that the military reacted feebly to the shelling, which followed the sinking of one of Seoul’s warship in March blamed on Pyongyang
- Seoul announces it will send more troops and guns to frontline islands in the Yellow Sea and bolster its rules of engagement
- North Korea warns of more strikes if it faces a “reckless military provocation” from the South

Nov 26: North Korea warns that plans for a US-South Korean naval exercise bring the peninsula “closer to the brink of war”
-- Seoul says the North appears to have staged an artillery firing exercise in the Yellow Sea, sending residents of the island of Yeonpyeong rushing into air raid shelters.