The rising tensions on the Korean peninsula erupted into violence on Tuesday as the North and South exchanged shell fire.
The North had issued warnings throughout the morning that the joint U.S.–South Korea training exercise near the island of Yeonpyeong was considered as ‘war manoeuvres’ and constituted a threat of invasion.
When the exercise continued, the North dropped 150 shells in and around Yeonpyeong—a territory long considered a flashpoint for conflict due to its proximity to the disputed border line imposed in 1953 after the Korean War.
The bombardment cost four lives, not to mention fires and extensive property damage.
North Korea’s shelling of civilian targets on the island has been roundly and forcefully condemned by democratic governments across the world. Critically, it has even invited ambivalent responses from China and Russia—former Communist countries which usually share common ground with the totalitarian state over its attitude to American ‘imperialism’. It is the deliberate targeting of public buildings such as museums and health clinics that differentiates this from the 1999 and 2002 engagements over Yeonpyeong.
The justification for the bombardment hinges on contrasting claims from each side of the border. The North claims that shells landed in their waters during the exercise, while the South claimed that the shells had been deliberately aimed in the opposite direction.
This comes at the end of a year that has seen relations between the two states deteriorate rapidly. In March the South’s battleship Cheonan sunk as it strayed near North Korean territorial waters.
Furthermore, this year’s training exercise has been particularly fraught thanks to the discovery last week that North Korea is running modern nuclear reactors comparable to those in America. The fear that the state may be developing a nuclear armament programme of its own has gripped the West for a large part of the past decade.
The recent tensions are in light of a delicate transition of power from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un. It is widely believed both inside and outside North Korea that the ‘Dear Leader’ is gravely close to death, and that there are simmering resentments over the succession from within the cabal of generals that runs the North Korean machine.
While initially most commentators believed war was not in the best interest of either of the Koreas, the South Korea–U.S. coalition force has brought in an aircraft carrier for additional drills to begin on Sunday, the prospect of which has angered the North.
Before conducting its own artillery exercise yesterday within a few miles of Yeonpyeong Island, the North’s state broadcaster KCNA issued a worrying statement suggesting that the peninsula was ‘on the brink of war’. The crucial player is China, North Korea’s closest ideological ally. Pleas from the U.S. and South Korea for Beijing to withdraw its tacit support for the regime may yet allow the conflict to defuse itself.
Most commentators believe that the new open-bordered China would not risk its economic ties with the rest of the world by standing with North Korea in the event of war. Beijing is likely to wring every drop from the situation as a bargaining tool with the West, but, if open warfare does break out, Pyongyang could find itself very much alone.