North Korea rained a hundred artillery shells on the island of Yeonpyeong at 2:30 P.M. local time today, killing two South Korean marines and setting homes ablaze. Yeonpyeong is home to over 1500 civilians.
The island is 80 miles west of the South Korean port of Inchon, and only two miles away from the disputed naval border with the increasingly desperate and belligerent North. Naval battles were fought between squadrons of patrol boats in these waters, in 1999 and 2002. The North has tried to lay claim to the island in the past.
This artillery attack comes only six months after a North Korean torpedo attack sank the South Korean warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. North Korea was recently cited in a U.N. report for selling banned nuclear and missile technology to other rogue states, and recently showed off a new uranium-enrichment facility that violates all sorts of solemn commitments they had previously sold to the world community. The Communist state is an utter basket case, with no significant industry except extortion. Its deranged leader, Kim Jong-Il, is in poor health, and preparing to pass the dictatorship along to his son, Kim Jong Un, who is only 27 years old. It would seem the old man wants to make sure his protection rackets are running smoothly before he hands them over to Junior.
The immediate cause of the attack was South Korean military drills, which involved firing artillery away from the coast, to the south. CNN reports a representative of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying the North sent a telephone message about six hours before the attack, demanding the South halt its military exercises, which the South refused to do.
The South Korean military responded to the attack by scrambling fighter jets and firing about 80 artillery shells at the North Korean coast. The Communist guns are dug into heavy emplacements, and it is unclear how much damage they might have suffered.
South Korea called the attacks “inhumane atrocities,” and President Lee Myung-bak instructed his government to “sternly respond” but insure “the situation would not escalate,” according to the Associated Press. You guessed it: a Sternly Worded Letter is sizzling off South Korean word processors as you read this. The United States condemned the attack, called on North Korea to “halt its belligerent action,” and reaffirmed its commitment to South Korean defense. It is possible that the Obama Administration is preparing its own Sternly Worded Letter, although it may prefer to sign on to the really elegant one that will no doubt be prepared by the United Nations soon.
The world community immediately woke up China and asked her to do something about her violently insane North Korean nephew. China yawned and mumbled something about “verifying relevant facts” and “hoping both parties make more contributions to the stability of the peninsula.” It’s unclear which relevant facts China wants to verify, since meteorologists report no naturally-occurring clouds of artillery shells in the area. It would also be nice if China outlined North Korea’s previous contributions to the stability of the peninsula. A Sternly Worded Letter from China seems unlikely at this hour, although a crabby phone call to Pyongyang is possible.
For its part, North Korea claims the South started the fight with its provocative military exercises, and promised to respond to further provocations, which it will define right after it responds to them.
The entire situation seems like a farce because it’s happened before. Every few years, North Korea decides its southern neighbor and the United Nations aren’t paying the danegeld of peace quickly enough, so it murders a few people. Everyone tells them not to do it again, then sighs and pulls out their checkbooks. If the checks aren’t large enough, North Korea invites the world community to imagine what it could do with a few hundred nuclear artillery shells, and reminds them its only profitable export is banned munitions, and it accepts all major credit cards as well as PayPal.
The realities of diplomacy with an intransigent totalitarian state, and the lack of good military options, make this a recurring nightmare. The only real question is how closely North Korea’s private estimation of “how far is too far” tracks with that of the United Nations. The maximum acceptable number of North Korean murders in any given month is a figure that will only be revealed when it has been violated. It probably runs into triple digits. It’s a system that could run forever, provided it is fueled with just the right amount of innocent blood.
Many civilian residents of Yeonpyeong have evacuated to Inchon and other refuges. They’ll need to think carefully about going back. Living next door to a psychotic dictatorship is dangerous, especially when a transfer of power has the starving populace twitching, or the dictator decides he needs a new palace.
Update (9:30 AM EST): Fox News is now reporting the South Korean president has hardened his stance considerably, and warns of “enormous retaliation” if the North launches another attack. If the South resumes the military exercises that served as the pretext for the first attack, the North may feel its credibility as a source of terror rests on striking again.
The South Korean capital of Seoul is within range of a vast number of North Korean artillery pieces. 30,000 American troops are stationed in South Korea. Thoughts and prayers go out to our troops, and our South Korean friends, in this hour of deadly tension.