North Korea on Saturday accused South Korea of placing "human shields" in military installations on Yeonpyeong Island in an attempt to pass the blame to the South for the death of two civilians in last week's artillery attack. The state-run Korean Central News Agency said reports of civilian deaths, if true, would be "regrettable," but added the fault is entirely with South Korea.
North Korea rained shells on South Korean artillery positions on Yeonpyeong Island as well as a town 1.5 km away. A mountain stands between the Marine positions and the town. Judging by how accurately the shells hit South Korean artillery positions, it appears that the North had been aiming its guns at both military and civilian targets, and the deaths occurred far away from the military installations.
It is a war crime to aim at and kill innocent civilians. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il should personally apologize and promise to hold the attackers accountable for their actions. But four days after the attack, only the North Korean media, and not the government, issues an commentary full of lies and finds nothing more poignant to say about these murders than that they were "regrettable." At least when North Korean soldiers shot dead a South Korean tourist at the Mt. Kumgang resort in 2008 and when civilians in the South drowned after the North released a huge amount of water from its dams without warning, there were comments from the government, however far short they fell of a full apology.
But that grudging use of the word "regrettable" smacks of a clear attempt to avoid mounting international criticism with the absolute minimum concession. The claim about human shields, meanwhile, looks like an attempt to drive a wedge between the military and the 8,300 residents of the five West Sea islands and send them fleeing to the mainland. If the residents leave, the North can turn the area around the Northern Limit Line into an area of conflict and bolster its claims for a different border.
From South Korea's perspective, the five West Sea islands are so close to North Korea that they serve as strategic military positions to strike at the North's heart. But they are also home to generations of South Korean fishermen. We should never forget that protecting the islands is crucial to protecting Seoul.