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North Korea's one-two punch

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

One North Korean aim, according to analyst Choi Jin-wook at the Korea Institute of National Unification, is to force the United States and South Korea into negotiations on North Korean terms.

North Korea has no notion of giving up its nuclear program, the topic of six-party talks last held in Beijing in December 2008, but would like to return to the table in order to accomplish other aims, notably withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops, including the powerful U.S. Seventh Air Force, from the Korean peninsula.

North Korea confirmed the planning behind this latest episode with broadcasts cast in rhetoric that people in the South have grown accustomed to ignoring. The fear is that North Korea will step up the attacks while South Korean marines and naval forces go on with exercises that are supposed to last a week.

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak is mingling tough talk with appeals for calm. He's threatening massive retaliation if North Korea attacks again, but he's also cautioning against extending the conflict.

Lee's top priority here is to maintain calm and head off a conflict that could throw South Korea's booming economy off course. South Korean business people are talking about the impact of the episode on the local stock market while wondering how a widened war will affect business.

South Koreans earlier in the afternoon were crowding around television sets, registering shock and apprehension. But after the firing ceased, the prevailing sense was that now we can get back to work and it probably won't happen again.

Some people, though, were complaining that South Koreans should not show their usual complacency over an incident that carries implications for all of them. Now that North Korea has attacked civilians in a rather remote island of fishermen and farmers in the Yellow Sea, they might take it from there and fire on populated regions.

Seoul, as is often noted, is within range of North Korea's artillery just above the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. The conventional view is that North Korea could wreak complete havoc in Seoul by firing a few artillery pieces, prompting flight from the city, hoarding and thoroughly upsetting the South Korean economy.

“The government stance is this will not lead to war,” said Park Weon-sun, a shopkeeper in central Seoul as people crowded around a TV screen in his shop. “Koreans tend to be more complacent than they should be. I don’t think it has yet really shaken them out of their complacency.”

More such episodes, though, might well have that effect. “Nobody I know has an escape plan,” said Park. “At first every one was shocked but now they are going about business as usual.”

Sooner or later, he said, “People will realize, ‘It can happen to you.’”