North Korea conducted a massive shelling exercise on Monday in waters near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border in the West Sea. The North fired around 500 rounds toward the NLL from coastal artillery positions and multiple-launch rocket systems, and around 100 of those rounds landed south of the NLL.
South Korea returned fire from K-9 self-propelled howitzers. It was the first time since the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2011 that the North fired artillery rounds targeting South Korean coastal waters.
The shelling exercise was a carefully calculated move. North Korean state-run media on Sunday threatened to "blow up" Baeknyeong Island, taking issue with South Korea's seizure last week of a North Korean fishing boat that had crossed over the NLL. The South sent the North Korean fishing boat back six hours after it was seized, but Pyongyang vowed "revenge," accusing Seoul of abducting the fishermen and using violence to coerce them to defect.
North Korea informed South Korea of the exercise ahead of time by sending a message through a naval hotline. This was unprecedented. By doing so, it appeared to be attempting to escape international condemnation. But as the North lobbed more than 500 rounds of artillery and rockets, residents of Baeknyeong and Yeonpyeong islands were forced to hide in shelters. The public had to relive the nightmare they endured three years ago when North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island.
Pyongyang can choose to call its latest move a military exercise, but it will not be able to hide the fact that it was a serious provocation.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry on Sunday warned it would conduct "a new form of nuclear test," hinting strongly that a fourth nuclear test may be imminent. The North accused the UN Security Council of "provoking" Pyongyang by criticizing its firing of two ballistic missiles.
During her visit to Germany last week, President Park Geun-hye offered to boost inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges if the North gives up its nuclear weapons. While remaining mum on Park's proposal, North Korea threatened to conduct a fresh nuclear test and held a massive live-fire drill near the NLL. If that is the response, Pyongyang must realize that it is walking down the path of self-destruction. A fourth nuclear test could land the North in a crisis with no way out.
China is the only country that is capable of preventing North Korea from making such a serious mistake. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Park recently and listened to her explain her vision of Korean reunification. Xi apparently expressed his support. Now the Korean Peninsula faces a fresh security crisis, and China does not want that to happen. The time has come for Beijing to take action.