Tensions High After North Korea’s Attack

North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire Tuesday along their disputed frontier, raising tensions between the rivals to their highest level in more than a decade. The communist nation warned of more military strikes if the South encroaches on the maritime border by “even 0.001 millimeter.”

The skirmish began when North Korea warned the South to halt military drills near their sea border, according to South Korean officials. When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters — but away from the North Korean shore — the North retaliated by shelling the small island of Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population.

Seoul responded by unleashing its own barrage from K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers and scrambling fighter jets. Two South Korean marines were killed in the shelling that also injured 15 troops and three civilians.

Officials in Seoul said there could be considerable North Korean casualties.

The confrontation lasted about an hour and left the uneasiest of calms, with each side threatening further bombardments.

North Korea’s apparent progress in its nuclear weapons program and its preparations for handing power to a new generation have plunged relations on the heavily militarized peninsula to new lows in recent weeks.

South Korea’s military was put on high alert after the shelling — one of the rivals’ most dramatic confrontations since an armistice halted the Korean War in 1953 and one of the few to put civilians at risk.

South Korea’s government held an emergency meeting Thursday on fallout from North Korea’s artillery attack as Washington and Seoul prepared for joint drills involving a U.S. nuclear-powered supercarrier.
The bombardment Tuesday of a tiny South Korean island along a disputed maritime frontier killed at least four people, sparked a brief skirmish and alarmed world leaders including President Barack Obama, who reaffirmed plans for joint maneuvers with Seoul in waters south of the clash starting Sunday.

……South Korean President Lee Myung-bak held a special meeting of top officials discuss security and economic impacts of the attack, a presidential official said.

Seoul and Washington prepared to hold joint military exercises involving the aircraft carrier USS George Washington starting Sunday in the Yellow Sea, just 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Yeonpyeong, the island shelled by North Korea on Tuesday.

……Residents of Yeongpyeong who evacuated the island and began arriving at the South Korean port of Incheon on Wednesday told harrowing tales of fiery destruction and narrow escapes.

South Korea’s president is vowing to boost security around islands near the site of this week’s artillery attack by North Korea.
The comments Thursday came during a meeting of top government officials aimed at reviewing security and economic impacts of the exchange of fire Tuesday that left four South Koreans dead and the region on edge.

Yonhap news agency says South Korean President Lee Myung-bak ordered his officials to beef up security around islands off South Korea’s western coast.

The USS George Washington is heading off to South Korea, marking the next step in a growing crisis. This week, North Korea committed one of their biggest post-Korean War attacks on South Korea, which has fueled fears that war is coming. If the North and South escalate their conflict, it will put the United State in a precarious position. That is why online users, and others around the world, are focusing on the USS George Washington as it heads to the Yellow Sea.

In truth, the aircraft carrier was already planning a trip to South Korea before this crisis. According to AOL News, military exercises there were set up well in advance, but their timing has now become more noteworthy.

When the USS George Washington was first scheduled to meet South Korean forces, it came before North Korea attacked those forces on Yeonpyeong island. Therefore, the South is on high alert, promising retaliation if the North strikes again.

Don’t count on China to pull the reins in on it’s problem child.

When North Korea tested a nuclear device last year, China issued bland criticism and urged Pyongyang to resume diplomacy. After a South Korean navy ship was sunk, most likely by a North Korean torpedo, Beijing sent its sympathies but called the evidence inconclusive.
Now that North Korea has unleashed an artillery barrage on a South Korean island that killed four people—including two civilians—and raised tensions in the heavily armed region, Beijing again appears unwilling to rein in its neighbor.

For all China’s growing international might, its tolerance of North Korea’s wayward behavior shows how differently Beijing sees the world—or at least its corner of it.

“There is zero chance of China, either in open or in private, putting major substantive pressure on North Korea,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University.

As impoverished North Korea’s most important diplomatic ally and source of crucial food and fuel assistance, China holds the sort of influence that could bring Pyongyang to heel. But keeping the region stable so that China may continue its upward trajectory is the Chinese leadership’s No. 1 priority. If that means putting up with the occasional North Korean provocation, experts say, so be it.

China has reasons to worry if the current, tenuous peace dissolves. It lost an estimated 400,000 troops in the 1950-53 Korean War. Another conflict or a meltdown of North Korea’s dictatorship could send hundreds of thousands of North Koreans across the border, burdening Chinese provinces that only in recent years recovered from painful restructuring of the planned economy. Worse, a South Korean victory would bring to China’s threshold a U.S. ally that hosts American military forces.

Following Tuesday’s bombardment, Beijing has so far shied away from calling North Korea to task.

In the highest level comments since the incident, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said China “opposed military provocations in any forms” and called for a resumption of talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament that stalled two years ago.

“All concerned parties should exert maximum restraint, and the international community should make more efforts conducive to easing up the tensions,” Wen said in remarks made while traveling in Russia and carried on the Foreign Ministry’s web site.

Wen never mentioned North Korea by name.

State media, the only media there is in China, maintained a mostly studied neutrality, describing the skirmish as an exchange of fire.

China’s strategy to steady North Korea has exacted costs. Beijing’s refusal to criticize North Korea after the sinking of South Korea’s naval corvette, the Cheonan, in which 46 sailors died, offended Seoul, a key investor and trade partner which had been drawing closer diplomatically. In the United Nations, China shielded North Korea from punishment over the incident.

China’s protection of North Korea at times seems so unreasonable that it adds to misgivings among Japan, Vietnam and other nations already upset over Beijing’s more forceful assertion of its territorial claims in the East and South China seas.

……Far from backing away from Pyongyang, China has in recent years doubled down on its support. As Japan, South Korea and others have reduced trade and aid in recent years in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests, China has stepped up deliveries of food and other assistance.

……The steadfastness of Beijing’s support at the expense of its international image and relations with Seoul and Washington have raised criticisms even in China that the North Korean tail sometimes wags the Chinese dog. Chinese officials and experts acknowledge the risk, saying Beijing’s leverage is limited, given that it is unwilling to throw its economic heft.

“Even if China tried to tell North Korea what to do, it’s unlikely they would easily listen,” said Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Shanghai’s Institute for International Studies.

45 percent North Korea’s trade is with China, and between 30 and 50 percent of China’s foreign aid budget is spent on North Korea. Pyongyang got $10 billion this year from China, while its population starves. Should China cut off all assistance, it would hasten the collapse of the North Korean government, sending millions of refugees across the border—including North Korean soldiers—which would destabilize China’s infrastructure. It would also leave North Korea’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons vulnerable for the taking. China would rather prop up North Korea than face the alternative.

Both China and North Korea are peripheral threats. North Korea, because of the bat-shit crazy Kim Jong Il, and China, because of its growing military and economic buildup, thanks to U.S. trade.

The cost of keeping North Korea as a tool will rise as the insane little gargoyle in Pyongyang keeps upping the ante of agitation. One of these days, North Korea will pick up where it left off in 1953, and we’ll have another war to fight.

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