North Korea fired artillery shells on a South Korean island on Tuesday killing two marines just days after revealing a large uranium-enrichment facility to visiting U.S. nuclear experts. Experts agree that the move was a planned provocation.
While the attack on the Navy corvette Cheonan in March took place by surprise under cover of night, the large-scale artillery assault on Yeonpyeong Island happened in broad daylight. Both military installations and civilian homes were targeted.
In a TV broadcast, North Korea's top military command blamed South Korea for the assault and said, "The revolutionary armed forces undertook decisive military measures against military provocation by the puppet regime" [South Korea]. "Should the puppet group dare intrude into the territorial waters" of the North "even 0.001 mm, the revolutionary armed forces will unhesitatingly continue taking merciless military counter-action."
◆ Consolidating Control
Nam Joo-hong, South Korea's ambassador for international security, said, "The regime is trying to consolidate its grip on power by rallying its people around these radical measures." The North's uranium enrichment program and provocations are part of efforts to puff up the image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's son Jong-un in line with the Songun or military-first doctrine.
"North Korea's field army, which is composed of hardliners, appears to be leading efforts to support Jong-un," Nam said. "They seem to be the ones behind the naval clash in November last year and the sinking of the Cheonan." General Kim Kyok-sik, the commander of North Korea's frontline fourth corps in charge of a Navy base on the western coast that covers the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea, is known as a key hardliner. The North Korea apparently put its military on full alert status since the attack.
◆ Internal Strife
Others suspect a power struggle between hardliners and moderates in the North. Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, said, "The artillery attack came unexpectedly just ahead of inter-Korean Red Cross Talks scheduled for Thursday. There is the possibility of an internal conflict between hawks and doves."
And a senior North Korean defector said, "As the sinking of the Cheonan shows, a lot of incomprehensible things are happening. But there are suspicions that North Korea's top leadership may be suffering problems in its decision-making ability or process."
◆ Fishing for Peace Treaty
Still others feel North Korea is angling for favorable terms and talks with the U.S. about a peace treaty. Song Dae-sung, head of the Sejong Institute, said, "It appears to be a strategy to turn the West Sea into a conflict area and draw Washington to the negotiating table to demand a peace treaty." In other words Pyongyang could be trying to get Washington to abandon its policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea.
Lee Jo-won at Chungang University, said, "North Korea has always gotten what it wants through brinkmanship." One indication of this is North Korea’s insistence that the de facto border, the Northern Limit Line, is invalid and saying it will only respect its own maritime military demarcation line in the West Sea.
◆ Political Manipulation
There are also suspicions that North Korea is trying to interfere in South Korean politics. "By creating a crisis atmosphere, North Korea is trying to foment disappointment in South Korea with the Lee Myung-bak administration's North Korea policies," a researcher at a state-run think tank said.
Having found that bullying and cajoling the South has become more difficult, Pyongyang could be trying to ratchet up tensions and stir up public sentiment against the government's hardline North Korea policy. "North Korea appears to be trying to sap support for the South Korean government's policies toward the North and gain control over inter-Korean relations," a Unification Ministry said.