Before Obama's Visit, a New Clash Between Koreas

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An undated photo of a South Korean navy boat, the same type of vessel that was involved in a naval clash with North Korea in November 2009.

If U.S. President Barack Obama, who is just a week away from his first visit to South Korea as head of state, needed a reminder of just how tense the Korean peninsula remains, he got one on Tuesday. For the third time in the past decade, the North and South Korean navies exchanged fire in disputed waters in the Yellow Sea, off the peninsula's west coast. According to the South Korean joint chiefs of staff, a North Korean gunboat ventured about a mile into what Seoul claims is its territorial waters. The South Koreans issued verbal warnings and then fired warning shots. In response, the North Korean boat peppered the South's patrol vessel with gunfire. The South Koreans returned fire and, they claimed, badly damaged the North Korean boat. Unlike the most recent naval clash — in which six South Korean sailors were killed in 2002 — Seoul said there were no casualties. It was unclear whether any North Korean sailors were killed or injured.

The incident came a week after Pyongyang said it was continuing to produce weapons-grade plutonium and just before an expected U.S. decision to restart talks with Pyongyang, under the auspices of the Chinese, about the North's nuclear program. The combination of the attack and Pyongyang's defiant announcement that it is still reprocessing plutonium may seem like aberrant behavior on what may be the eve of the North's re-engagement with the outside world. But for Pyongyang, it's more like standard operating procedure. "Unpredictable surprises are the strength of North Korea," says Jeung Young-tae, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. Pyongyang's thinking, many analysts believe, is that by causing a mini-crisis before negotiations, the contours of the talks will be shifted and Pyongyang's counterparts will simply try to get the North to calm down before doing anything else, which makes it less likely, Jeung says, that Pyongyang will have to make any concessions on substantive issues.

The episode late Tuesday morning only intensifies the deeply strained relations between the two Koreas. Earlier this year, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il staged a bit of a charm offensive, ending a period of silence while he recovered from a stroke. Kim said he would again agree to talks about his nuclear program, and he hosted former President Bill Clinton in Pyongyang, who traveled to the North to win the release of two U.S. journalists who had been arrested there. But there's little sign of any thaw with Seoul. Pyongyang has been infuriated that South Korean President Lee Myung Bak hasn't continued the so-called Sunshine Policy of his two predecessors, which boosted Seoul's economic aid to the North. Seoul was angered in September when North Korea, without forewarning, released a massive amount of water from behind a dam near the demilitarized zone, which ended up killing six South Koreans who were camping downstream on their side of the border. (The North issued a rare statement of regret after the incident.) Lee recently offered as a goodwill gesture to send 10,000 tons of corn and 20 tons of dry-milk powder as aid to the North, but Pyongyang, through its state-run media, was contemptuous in response. "South Koreans should be ashamed of and disgraced by this small-minded, condescending act," a state-run paper sneered.

Washington's push to re-engage Pyongyang probably won't be interrupted by the naval shootout. China, which views itself as the North's big brother, has invested a fair bit of diplomatic capital in getting Kim to agree to return to diplomacy. When Obama huddles with Chinese President Hu Jintao next week in Beijing before going to Seoul, the two will probably talk about North Korea. Obama will want a sense from Hu and the Chinese as to how serious the North is about a possible nuclear deal and what the components of such a deal might be. Obama said during his presidential campaign, and has signaled since assuming office, that he's not averse to having the U.S. talk directly with the North. The fact that the North has been typically ornery of late — possibly crossing into Seoul's territorial waters, defiantly announcing that it's still reprocessing plutonium — may just be Kim Jong Il's way of getting ready to talk.

With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul