Behind the Koreas' Artillery Fire: Kim's Succession

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Yonhap / Reuters

Smoke rises from South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island after it was hit by artillery shells from North Korea on Nov. 23, 2010

With President Barack Obama's special envoy to North Korea now hitting the three major East Asian capitals (Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing) to try to figure out what, if anything, they can do about North Korea's escalating nuclear ambitions, Kim Jong Il apparently decided that it was time for some target practice. At about 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday in Korea, North Korea commenced a fusillade of artillery fire across the disputed maritime border between North and South, attacking an island in what the Koreas call the West Sea. For just over an hour, the North bombarded Yeonpyeong Island, killing two South Korean marines, injuring 16 more marines and injuring at least three civilians. More than 50 homes caught fire because of the bombardment, and residents of the sparsely populated island scrambled for safety in a bomb shelter. The South responded by scrambling F-16s — which did not cross into North Korean airspace, the South Korean Joint Chiefs said — and returning artillery fire, to unknown effect.

The assault — the second in the area in the past year — came in the midst of a nine-day live-fire exercise conducted by South Korean forces in the waters near the so-called Northern Limit Line, the U.N.-mandated maritime border that Pyongyang does not recognize. Late Tuesday, the North explicitly blamed these exercises for its attack: "Despite our repeated warnings, South Korea provoked us by firing artillery shells into our territory," said a statement from Pyongyang that was carried on the Korean Central News Agency, the North's primary external propaganda arm. "Our revolutionary forces countered with stern military actions. It is our traditional military countermeasure to punish perpetrator's fire with a thunderbolt of fire." The South, for the record, said the exercises were conducted on its side of the so-called NLL.

But the timing, with U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth in the region, was probably not coincidental. The skirmish comes less than two weeks after North Korea allowed a prominent American nuclear scientist to see a brand-new facility for the production of highly enriched uranium — one of the two possible source materials for producing a nuclear bomb. Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Labs in the U.S., described the facility, which sits next to the North's plutonium reactor in Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, as "stunning." Though the North told Hecker during his 3½-hr. visit that the centrifuges in use there were intended to enrich uranium only to produce electricity, the revelation heightened fears that Pyongyang seeks to develop nuclear weapons with highly enriched uranium.

Analysts in Seoul said the thread plausibly linking the nuclear revelations and Tuesday's attack in the West Sea is the leadership succession now under way in Pyongyang. Both underscore what has been a central political component of the Kim Jong Il regime, the doctrine of "military first" politics. In Kim's words, it means "placing top priority on military affairs" and turning the North Korean army into a "pillar of the revolution." Just six weeks ago, the regime in Pyongyang effectively affirmed that Kim's son Kim Jong Un would succeed his father as the next ruler of North Korea. That the North continues to upgrade its ability to make nuclear weapons — the regime already has between 8 and 12 bombs, according to U.S. intelligence — while lashing out militarily during a high-profile visit to the neighborhood by Obama's special envoy shows one thing: when young Kim takes over, nothing much in the North will change.

"Kim Jong Un," says Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul think tank, "is currently under the influence of more hawkish generals. The son's power base is derived from the military, and the power of military is greater than ever."

The likely message to Washington from the North is a familiar one: We're still here, we're still kind of crazy, and you still need to deal with us. Bosworth has said that the U.S. will not re-engage with the so-called six-party talks on denuclearization until the North takes affirmative steps to clearly show that it's serious about abiding by the agreement it signed on Sept. 19, 2005, "to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs ... at an early date." More than five years later, Pyongyang has ramped up its uranium-enrichment capability and restarted its plutonium program. The past two weeks, Cheong believes, could, from Pyongyang's perspective, "be a sort of shock therapy to all stakeholders" in the future of the Korean peninsula.

Maybe so, but one country that is decidedly not shocked — at least publicly — is China, the only nation with any influence on Pyongyang. After Bosworth arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, with the artillery falling on Yeonpyeong, Beijing responded with a blandness that approached indifference. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said that China believed both sides of the divided Korean peninsula should "do more to contribute to peace." He added that Beijing felt it "imperative" that all sides return to six-party talks — a position the U.S. agrees with only if the North does something first to indicate it's willing to stand down its nukes, as it agreed to do five years ago.

Presumably, ratcheting up its ability to enrich uranium and attacking a tiny South Korean island do not qualify as the positive signal Washington and its allies were looking for. Beijing, nonetheless, apparently believes everyone should begin talking again anyway. Obama, in short, has no good options — which is pretty much the definition of the outside world's relations with North Korea — and just how Pyongyang likes it.

With reporting by Stephen Kim in Seoul