North Korea's well-rehearsed performance

OSAKA, Japan — A day after North Korea unleashed a deadly artillery barrage against South Korea, the region is again playing the parlor game of crafting a response to the regime’s idiosyncratic brand of brinksmanship.

Predictably, Tuesday’s attacks on the island of Yeonpyeong, in which two South Korean marines and at least two civilians were killed, have drawn words of condemnation from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. China, the North’s ally and main benefactor, has so far confined itself to calling for “restraint” on both sides.

South Korean troops have been put on their highest state of non-wartime alert, and global markets have been badly shaken. The United States has promised unwavering support to Seoul, and today the USS George Washington left Tokyo to take part in a joint military exercise — albeit one that was planned before the outbreak of hostilities — with the South in waters not far from the scene of the attack.

While the clash was one of the most serious since the two Koreas settled on an uneasy truce at the end of their 1950-1953 war, there is little reason to believe that the artillery exchanges across the Yellow Sea border were the opening salvoes in a potentially catastrophic war.

Consider the timing. North Korean shells rained on dozens of homes just as Washington’s top envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, was midway through visits to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing designed to revive six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

And the attack came as the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was digesting startling revelations about a hitherto secret uranium enrichment complex in the North, as witnessed by a leading U.S. scientist during a recent visit.

The regime has sought to justify its attack as a measured response to provocation from its neighbor, which it accused of firing into its territory during a recent military drill.

Diplomatic precedent suggests, however, that North Korea had a more considered aim in mind when it took the gamble of launching a direct attack on its neighbor.

It will come as no consolation to the victims and their families, or to the residents forced to flee their homes, but many analysts interpret the attack as a well-rehearsed performance, put on by the North Koreans for the benefit of both international and domestic audiences.

The Korean Central News Agency, a mouthpiece for the regime, couched the attack as an act of self-defense, accusing the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, of “treacherous” and “intolerable” moves to destroy the prospects of reunification of the peninsula. Lee, the agency said, had “driven the situation to the brink of war, against the will of all Koreans.”

Despite Lee’s threats to order a retaliatory strike, his response is likely to reverberate in conference rooms of the United Nations, not across the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean peninsula.

The North, meanwhile, knows from experience that it can achieve its short-term aims provided it follows an act of belligerence with conciliatory noises.

So far, this week’s events adhere to that blueprint. That it decided to target South Korean civilians suggests the regime had calculated that, once it had weathered a storm of protest in the immediate aftermath, it would secure concessions from South Korea and the United States.

At the same time, more than a year after it drew international sanctions following its second nuclear weapons test, and just months after it was accused of torpedoing a South Korean navy vessel, the regime has not budged an inch on its central demands: more food and other aid, and end to sanctions, and direct talks with the United States.

By allowing Siegfried Hecker, a professor at Stanford University, to tour its “astonishingly modern” uranium enrichment plant, North Korea was sending a message: that anti-proliferation measures haven’t worked, and that, as the possessor of enough fissile material for up to 12 plutonium-based bombs, it demands respect as a legitimate nuclear power.

This week’s attack won’t force an immediate end to sanctions or a welcome into the community of nuclear states, but it should at least force a rethink in policy, particularly in Washington.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo, says it will be hard to stomach, but the Obama administration must now consider how to reopen the lines of communication forged during the latter years of the administration of George W. Bush.

“The timing is linked to Bosworth’s visit and is designed to send the Obama administration a clear message,” Kingston said. “That they are interested in talking, and that this was not a simple act of defiance.

“The six-party talks look dead in the water and the North Koreans aren’t going to give up their weapons program. The question is what concessions they will make in return for talks with the U.S. The Obama administration has to rethink its approach.”

When North Korea misbehaves, the world looks to China for admonishment. This time, as in the past, it will probably be disappointed. So far Beijing has offered an expression of concern, but is unlikely to stray from its policy of encouraging stability in the North, thereby avoiding a descent into war and the possible loss of its buffer state against the South and its U.S. ally.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said: "China takes this incident very seriously, and expresses pain and regret at the loss of life and property, and we feel anxious about developments.

"China strongly urges both North and South Korea exercise calm and restraint, and as quickly as possible engage in dialogue and contacts. China opposes any actions harmful to the peace and stability" of the Korean peninsula.

In North Korea, the nuclear revelations and the attack on the South will inevitably be linked, however tenuously, to the elevation of Kim Jong Il’s youngest son to the position of heir apparent.

Since promoting Kim Jong Un, who is still only 27 or 28, to the rank of general earlier this year, Kim Jong Il has strived to secure backing of his reportedly disgruntled army generals for the succession plans.

As Bradley Martin wrote in GlobalPost earlier this week, if the uranium enrichment plant was evidence of Kim Jong Un's spurious part in the North’s technological development, then the attacks on Yeonpyeong will enable his father to burnish his military credentials.

The chances of war, or even of a large military build-up by the United States and its allies in the region are remote. But the political tension, let alone the financial waves created by even minor skirmishes, serve as a reminder of the North’s potential to damage the region’s peace of mind.

A day after the shelling ceased, the area has reverted to an uneasy truce. Decades after the last war between the two Koreas ended without an armistice, it is at least a state of affairs that they and the rest of the region have reluctantly accepted as the norm.

As he ponders the failure of his dual deterrence and sanctions policy to rein in North Korean excesses, Obama might want to consider the words of one of his predecessors.

“Pyongyang has sent a consistent message that during direct talks with the United States, it is ready to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programs, put them all under [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the ‘temporary’ cease-fire of 1953,” Jimmy Carter wrote in today’s Washington Post.

“We should consider responding to this offer. The unfortunate alternative is for North Koreans to take whatever actions they consider necessary to defend themselves from what they claim to fear most: a military attack supported by the United States, along with efforts to change the political regime.”

It is an uncomfortable choice, but as the smoke clears from the skies above Yeonpyeong, one that the president cannot put off for much longer.