Just days after delegations to North Korea confirmed that the country is expanding its nuclear capabilities with a new, 2000-centrifuge enrichment facility at Yongbyon, Pyongyang appears to be escalating hostilities with Seoul. South Korea placed its military on its highest non-wartime alert (BBC) on Tuesday, returning fire and scrambling F-16 fighters after North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. More than sixty buildings on the border island were set ablaze. It was the first artillery strike on South Korean soil since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty in 1953. North Korea blamed South Korea for starting the incident (Xinhua) and claimed it was responding with "determined military measures."
Some analysts believe North Korea's provocations are linked to the leadership transfer underway (BBC), as ailing leader Kim Jong-Il passes the dynastic baton to his son Kim Jong-Un. In September, North Korea's ruling party held a rare congress in which Kim Jong-Un was given major roles in the party and the Central Military Commission. Recent belligerence and military posturing could be a way to bolster the authority of Kim Jong-Un (FT). Analysts have noted that the last handover of power in North Korea was also accompanied by a series of aggressive acts (Telegraph) intended to strengthen the new leader's relationship with the army. An internal power struggle in North Korea, between hardliners and reformists, is also thought to be underway, and could have sparked military action.
The latest incident is the most serious in a series of recent skirmishes (NYT). Seoul blamed the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel on a North Korean torpedo attack, escalating tensions. In August, North Korea fired 110 artillery rounds near Yeonpyeong and another South Korean island, according to Seoul officials. Three weeks ago, the South Korean Navy fired warning shots at a North Korean fishing boat after the vessel strayed across the Northern Limit Line.
This latest episode also underscores Washington's ongoing diplomatic frustrations with Pyongyang as well as Beijing, notably on North Korea's nuclear program. The Obama administration has not held direct, official talks with North Korea since last spring and has rebuffed China's calls for resumption of the Six Party Talks (WashPost)--which some critics say is not helpful. "Like his predecessors, President Barack Obama is learning the hard way that the only thing worse than negotiating with North Korea is not negotiating with North Korea," said Daryl Kimball (AP), executive director of the private Arms Control Association in Washington.
So far, the international sanctions regime imposed under UN Security Council Resolution 1874 has failed. And, as CFR expert Scott Snyder points out, China "is increasingly viewed as an enabler of North Korea's nuclear agenda. North Korea's renewed nuclear development efforts are likely to push North Korea higher on the Sino-U.S. agenda while strengthening skepticism of China's willingness to cooperate in restraining its neighbor." CFR's Sheila Smith notes that Pyongyang's increasing willingness to use force against the South also raises important challenges for Washington's other ally in the region, Japan. "Should this conflict escalate further, Japan will need to accelerate its efforts to strengthen crisis management in the U.S.-Japan alliance," Smith says.
This CFR Task Force Report identifies three elements of an internationally coordinated response to the threat posed by North Korea: denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and an approach that attempts to resolve rather than simply manage the nuclear issue; regional cohesion, enabled by close U.S.-South Korea relations; and China's cooperation and active engagement.
North Korea's Kim Jong-Il created a triumvirate to succeed him. But this "collective leadership" will not change relations with the United States anytime soon, says CFR expert Sue M. Terry.
Further provocations by North Korea as well as other dangerous military interactions on or around the Korean peninsula remain a serious risk and carry the danger of unintended escalation, says CFR's Paul Stares.
Read the recent press conference of President Obama and South Korean President Lee here.
This CFR Crisis Guide examines the history of tensions on the Korean peninsula.