North Korea shelled a South Korean island today, and South Korea responded with 80 shells of its own. Prior to the attack, South Korea conducted a test firing near the North Korean coast, but denies that any shells passed over the disputed maritime border. However, the risk of mistakes -- and misperceptions -- in such a contested area is very high.
Tensions were already running high on the peninsula. North Korea recently revealed to a visiting U.S. delegation its brand new uranium enrichment facility and a rudimentary light-water reactor. This was Pyongyang's way of saying that sanctions haven't done anything to retard its nuclear development. As for the timing, North Korea was clearly impatient with the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience."
The nuclear revelations, by themselves, do not change the geopolitical dynamic. According to Siegfried Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory who toured the facilities, "I believe that although this peaceful program can be diverted to military ends, the current revelations do not fundamentally change the security calculus of the United States or its allies at this time. Pyongyang has gained significant political leverage already from the few plutonium bombs they have."
As two other members of the delegation Robert Carlin and John Lewis point out in The Washington Post, the United States should not dismiss negotiations with North Korea or simply let South Korea or Japan take the lead. "What is needed, right away, is a thorough review of the past 16 years of engagement with Pyongyang, analysis of the facts as we best know them and an honest assessment of the options," they write. Unfortunately, even before the artillery exchange, the United States rejected the idea of restarting negotiations and was cool to Pyongyang's proposal to transfer its nuclear rods to a third country in exchange for a U.S. recommitment to a declaration of no hostile intent.
For the moment, though, the deterioration of relations between North and South will likely dominate the news for a while. The artillery attack reverses what had been a very, very modest warming in north-south relations. In Seoul last week, I heard rumors that the Lee Myung Bak administration was thinking about pursuing a summit with North Korea next year. And the South Korean government had slowly backed away from its linking of nuclear negotiations to its demands for an apology for a ship, the Cheonan, that Seoul has accused Pyongyang of sinking back in March.
The Cheonan story, meanwhile, refuses to go away. In September, the South Korean government issued its full report on the Cheonan incident, which put the blame squarely on a North Korean torpedo. Rather than dispelling any lingering doubts, however, the report generated more criticism. "There are several sources of public skepticism, particularly from the scientific community," write FPIF contributors Peter Certo, Greg Chaffin, and Hye-Eun Kim in The Cheonan Incident. "Furthermore, the secretive attitude adopted by the Lee government, its heavy-handed approach in dealing with the incident, and its reluctance to address or even allow for questions or concerns have served to fuel skepticism and allowed for conspiracy theories to abound." Last week, the state-run TV station KBS aired a documentary that refuted several key elements of the South Korean report, including evidence that the tell-tale torpedo parts had been in the ocean, and not part of a recent explosion.
Let's hope that both North and South Korea step back from the brink. As I wrote in 2003, "The Korean War was a cataclysm, a terrible outpouring of blood and destruction. The 1953 armistice that halted the war may well have been only a provisional peace. Fifty years later, nearly two million soldiers face off across the DMZ, weapons of mass destruction abound on both sides, and military forces in the region are at hair-trigger readiness. Unless North Korea and the United States embark on serious negotiations rather than dead-end talks, a bigger, badder sequel to the 1950 conflict will be the unintended consequence. After the Deluge, as the old spiritual put it, 'God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.'"