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
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
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
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
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
Fifty-eight sailors were rescued; 46 others
perished. Later investigations confirmed that the
ship was destroyed by a Torpedo fired by a North
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
After many years of playing hardball, obtaining aid
that kept its dictatorial regime in power the North
eventually did produce a nuclear bomb.
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
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
China, however, is under pressure to curtail
aggression by its North Korean ally.
Rogue actions by the North have come to reflect
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
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.
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.