Here's crucial context from Tim Shorrock in a recent Democracy Now interview:
AMY GOODMAN: The fighting came just days after was revealed North Korea had made rapid advances in enriching uranium at a previously undisclosed plant. For more, I’m joined by Tim Shorrock, an investigative journalist who has covered Korea for more than 30 years and grew up partly in South Korea. Tim, welcome to "Democracy Now!" First, explain exactly what happened.Read the rest of the interview here.
TIM SHORROCK: Over the last couple of days, the South Korean military, which is part of a joint command with the U.S. military, held massive exercises in a disputed area, near the disputed maritime zone area on the west coast of Korea. These exercises had been planned months in advance and North Korea of course knew about then. They involved tens of thousands of South Korean soldiers, many warships and air force planes as well as personnel from the U.S. Marines and Air Force. And these exercises, as you said, they are live fire exercises.
North Korea, shortly before, in the days leading up to these exercises, warned they would react if shells fell in their line of this maritime line, demarcation line, which they dispute and have disputed for years. Apparently, some shells did land on their side of this line and they retaliated by shelling this island and causing many, you know, some casualties. It was a very serious and grave incident that deserves the very serious and sober analysis, which we have not seen in the U.S. media in the past 24 hours. That is what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by what has taken place? The media is making a great deal of the North Korean leader taking his young son, heir apparent on a tour of a soy sauce factory while this was going on.
TIM SHORROCK: You’re always kind of surprised when these things happen.
But in the context of the last 50 years, it is not really that surprising, particularly if you look at the maritime zone and particularly if you look at the history of U.S.-South Korean military and its standoff with the North Korean regime.
First of all, over the last few years, there has increasing tensions over this zone. As I said, this border area in the sea, this border line was imposed unilaterally by the U.S. Navy in 1953 right after the Korean war. That line has never been recognized by North Korea, nor by the international community.
A few years ago, under the former presidency of Roh Moo-Hyun, there was actually a meeting, a summit meeting, between the president of South Korea and Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea. They sat down and worked out sort of a set of agreements to try to decrease tensions in that maritime area, including the making of free fishing zones and having discussions to alleviate the attention to make sure there were no incidents like this.
This new president Lee is very conservative man who has rejected the former sunshine policies of Kim Dae-Jung and his predecessor, who were much more open and tried to cement closer relationships and end the enmity between North and South Korea. Lee unilaterally pulled away from this agreement.
And over the last few years, our listeners and watchers will remember, there have been quite a few incidents. Earlier this year, in March 2010, a South Korean naval ship was blown up allegedly by North Korea by a torpedo and sank, killing about 33 sailors. This was also a very serious incident. And many people who watch North Korea believe that that particular attack, if North Korea did it, was in retaliation for an incident that took place last year when South Korea fired on a North Korean ship that had crossed the line and many North Korean sailors were killed in that attack. And so you know this has been going on.
I think the first thing that needs to be done is it would be important to restore some kind of discussion, some kind of negotiation so they can reduce tensions in that specific area.
More important context (via Tim Shorrock's blog) by staff writer Son Won-je of the South Korean newspaper, The Hankyoreh:
North Korea’s artillery attack Tuesday on Yeonpyeong Island was a high-intensity military provocation without precedent since the armistice that ended the Korean War. Unlike previous military clashes over the year, private South Korean homes and civilians were subjected to an indiscriminate attack.Read the rest here.
For the time being, North Korea is using South Korea’s military defense exercises as its rationale for the attack. On Tuesday morning, Pyongyang sent a message to South Korea criticizing the exercises as “effectively an attack on North Korea.”
The Hoguk Exercise in question involve 70 thousand South Korean armed forces troops, 600 tracked vehicles, 90 helicopters, 50 warships, and 500 aircraft. The U.S. military is contributing the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and 7th Air Force to the land and air training exercises, respectively. Pyongyang regards the exercises as training for an attack on North Korea, citing the fact that it is a large-scale joint South Korea-U.S. exercise encompassing naval fleets, air forces, and land exercises.
A former [South Korean] Navy admiral with experience as a squadron leader around the West Sea Northern Limit Line (NLL) said that Yeonpyeong Island “was probably chosen as the site for the attack because it is closest to the North Korea coast, allowing for easy firing and high precision.”
The former admiral added, “Given that civilian homes were also targeted, it is too deliberate to be viewed simply as a response to the defense exercises.”
Analysts have suggested that the different form of military behavior seen this time stemmed from an urgent situation within North Korea.
Korea National Defense University Professor Kim Yeon-su said, “There is a possibility that the reason North Korea has shown this pattern of provocation, ratcheting up the crisis index on the Korean Peninsula, has to do with some problem that arose in the establishment process for the leadership succession system.”
In other words, North Korea may have sensed a need to deal a high-intensity international and domestic shock in order to surmount the immense challenges presented in the succession system establishment process.
Observers predict that this attack will have the effect of increasing solidarity behind the Kim Jong-un system, which emphasizes songun, military first, domestic policy. This analysis suggests that North Korea may have been attempting to foment the belief that amid a situation of military confrontation with South Korea, there is no alternative to a response centered on the Kim Jong-un succession system, which has inherited Kim Jong-il’s songun policy.
Another possibility mentioned by analysts is that the attack was ultimately intended to promote and strengthen Kim Jong-un’s leadership by effecting changes in Washington and Seoul’s North Korea policy through hardline military measures.
The prevailing analysis is that the decision to wage an attack on the area near the West Sea NLL, coming on the heels of the sudden disclosure of a uranium enrichment facility recently to a U.S. expert visiting North Korea, carried the political message of “highlighting the seriousness of the political situation on the peninsula.”
An expert who requested anonymity said, “North Korea’s recent actions may in some respects be aimed at forming an environment favorable for negotiations in the long term, but at least in the short term they strongly suggest a show of force to indicate that Pyongyang is not going to be dwelling on negotiations.”
Another possibility mentioned by observers was that the move was based on the calculation that if North Korea ratcheted up the peninsula’s crisis index, the United States would inevitably be compelled to pursue negotiations with Pyongyang in order to manage the situation. In spite of North Korea’s recent “dialogue offensive,” Seoul has maintained the position that the resumption of large-scale aid and Mt. Kumgang tourism is an impossibility.
“Since the recent conciliation offensive spearheaded by the United Front Department did not work out, it may be the case that North Korea is trying to spark conflict within South Korea by using shock treatment methods to shake up South Korean society, thus pressuring Seoul into taking part in dialogue,” said an expert at one state-run think tank.
With this latest incident, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has plunged into a murky crisis where it is impossible to see what lies ahead. While the sudden revelation of North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility is likely to have more of a negative impact on the Northeast Asia situation in general than on inter-Korean relations, Tuesday’s artillery battle around Yeonpyeong Island is a major disaster that will deal a fatal blow to already strained inter-Korean relations. Depending on the way in which the situation unfolds, it could go beyond this to have a major impact on the political situation surrounding the peninsula.