The artillery clash between North and South Korea around the island of Yeonpyeong on November 23, 2010 has been portrayed in mainstream media as an unprovoked attack by the North that involved indiscriminate fire on a civilian area. The reality is very different. The public record shows that, far from being unexpected and unprovoked, the North had issued a number of warnings, including a telephone call to the local commander, saying that the South's proposed live fire exercise would be considered an intolerable provocation because the shells would fall in the North's territorial waters and that it would launch "a resolute physical counter-strike" if it went ahead. The warnings were disregarded and the North shelled the large marine base on the island, killing two soldiers and injuring several. (Two civilians, reportedly working on a construction site on the base, were also killed.) It is not known how many were killed or wounded in the South's counter-offensive on the North.
The Yeonpyeong clash happened at the time South Korea, with American support, was carrying out yet another huge military exercise practicing war against the North, including marine amphibious assaults. These military exercises, which have been a feature of the Korean peninsula for decades, have been growing in strength and scope and are part of conservative South Korea President Lee Myung-bak's strategy of precipitating a crisis that will bring about the collapse of North Korea and its takeover by the South. To counter this, the North has a "zero-tolerance" strategy, whereby any attack (such as the frequently discussed bombing of the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon), or any premeditated infringement of their territory, would be met with fierce retaliation.
Yeonpyeong is situated near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), a maritime boundary unilaterally drawn by the United States and rejected by North Korea. In 2007, the leaders of both the North and South agreed to set up a special zone to do away with this area of friction, but that agreement was overturned by Lee Myung-bak when he assumed the presidency of South Korea in 2008.
The South has announced that it will restart and expand its military exercises around the NLL. This will inevitably trigger a Northern retaliation. The South has threatened to escalate any clash with air strikes and there is an increasing danger of the situation spiraling into war. South Korea and the United States have rejected calls by China, echoed by North Korea, for negotiations, but have, instead, launched further war exercises led by the nuclear-powered, and nuclear-capable, aircraft carrier the USS George Washington. This happened despite protests from the Chinese, which fears that the show of strength is directed at them.
A second Korea war would inevitably involve the United States and could turn into a Sino-American war with incalculable consequences for the peninsula, the region, and the world.
Tim Beal, recently retired as a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, is the author of North Korea: The Struggle Against American Power and the editor of the online newsletter, the Pyongyang Report.