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Asia

Tension on the Korean peninsula explodes

North Korea has shelled a South Korean border island in another deliberately provocative act designed to increase tension, at a time when there is a carefully-orchestrated succession game going on.

Koreans praying

Praying for peace: The North's attack has tensions flaring across the region

The small island of Yeonpyeong in the Yellow Sea, which boasts not even 2,000 inhabitants, has now become the battleground for one of the most serious skirmishes to take place between North and South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Shortly after South Korea had carried out long-announced maritime maneuvers on Tuesday, North Korea's artillery fired dozens of shells at the island, killing at least two people. Buildings and woods were engulfed in flames. South Korean soldiers stationed on the island returned the fire.

Yeonpyeong island is near the disputed border between North and South Korea

Yeonpyeong island is near the disputed Yellow Sea border between North and South Korea

Incidents on the sea border

Putting the incident in context, Walter Klitz from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Seoul said there had always been "such incidents on the sea border, which has not been officially agreed upon by the North and the South."

"In March, we had the Cheonan story, when a South Korean frigate was sunk by a torpedo and 46 marines were killed. In 1999, in 2002 when six soldiers were killed, and in November when North Korean soldiers were supposedly injured," he said.

"The provocations of the past have always had only one aim," agreed Markus Tidten from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "They are there to explain: 'We are a strong power, we are now a nuclear power, we won’t let ourselves be ordered about and we want to be respected.'"

To underline its status as a nuclear power, Pyongyang not only carried out another nuclear test last year, but just recently it allowed a US scientist to visit a previously-unknown, state-of-the-art uranium-enrichment nuclear facility.

46 marines were killed when the Cheonan warship was sunk in March

46 marines were killed when the Cheonan warship was sunk in March

A trump in the hand

"This is a kind of North Korean tactic to occupy the upper hand in the upcoming and possible negotiations with the outside world," explained Choi Kang from the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

In the past, North Korea has demanded a high price for any type of concession it has given, often causing tension to escalate ahead of negotiations.

But Markus Tidten points out that Pyongyang is always very sure to not overstep the line, being aware that North Korea could not win a full-scale war considering the army’s poor equipment.

"I would say that they know exactly how far they will go with their provocations. They want to retain a trump card so-to-speak," he pointed out.

A domestic dimension

The escalation along the 38th parallel also has a domestic dimension. There is a well-orchestrated succession game going on, which has already had several acts this year. The appointment of Kim Jong-un as a four-star general was the first in September, with this being promptly followed by his nomination to the central committee and then to the leadership of the country’s military commission. Finally, he was presented to the North Korean public and the international community at a military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the ruling Worker's Party.

Kim Jong-un is widely expected to take over from his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-un is widely expected to take over from his father, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

Choi Kang thinks that this is perhaps another reason for North Korea "to stage this kind of provocation against South Korea to show the people that Kim Jong-un is the next leader and to manage these kinds of military affairs in a more dramatic way."

The lead-up to the nomination of Kim Jong-il, today's "Dear Leader" almost 30 years ago, was accompanied by conflicts with the South. In 1983, North Korean agents carried out an attack on a high-level South Korean delegation in Rangoon, the then capital of Myanmar. The South Korean president survived the attack but the foreign minister and 16 others were killed. In 1987, the North Korean secret services planted a bomb on board a South Korean passenger plane, killing all 155 when it exploded over the Indian Ocean.

Author: Matthias von Hein (act)
Editor: Arun Chowdhury

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