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North Korea's one-two punch

Analysis: One incident won't signal change. But what's the likelihood of another?

SEOUL, South Korea — The North Korean artillery barrage on Tuesday on an obscure South Korean island in the Yellow Sea was much more serious than previous naval clashes in the same disputed waters for one basic reason.

"It was the first time they attacked us on land since the Korean War," said Lee Jong Min, professor at Yonsei University and ambassador on security affairs at foreign ministry.

Nobody thinks the attack could have been at the orders of regional commander acting on his own. "Kim Jong Il has to have ordered it," said Robert Collins, retired intelligence analyst for U.S. command here.

The timing was significant — on the first day of South Korean exercises that North Korea has pledged to crush with "relentless retaliation."

North Korea claims the attack was provoked by South Korea for firing first and intruding in its waters. The issue is the Northern Limit Line set by the United Nations Command three years after the Korean War, marking the line in the Yellow Sea below which North Korean boats are banned.

North Korea has been challenging the line for many years, most dramatically in June 1999, when South and North Korean vessels clashed and a North Korean vessel was sunk. And again in June 2002, when a North Korean vessel fired on a South Korean boat, killing six sailors.

The confrontation worsened in November of last year when a South Korean navy corvette sent a North Korean vessel back to port "in flames" with loss of life — though no one knows for sure how many casualties were inflicted. Then, on March 26, a North Korean midget submarine fired a torpedo that sank the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette killing 46 sailors in the worst episode so far in these disputed waters.

Today's episode is more serious than previous incidents in part because North Korea seems determined to pressure the United States and South Korea into going into talks on North Korea's terms.

There seems to be little question that it was deliberately timed to follow up on the disquieting news that North Korea is well on the way to completing a uranium enrichment plant at the nuclear complex at Yongbyon where it's already produced materiel for probably a dozen warheads, according to intelligence estimates.

It's as though North Korea had delivered a one-two punch — first showing off its status as a nuclear power and then putting on a display of its skills in conventional warfare.