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North Korea's well-rehearsed performance

Analysis: As the smoke clears, the US and South Korea scramble to respond.

South Korea military
A South Korean navy ship sails into port in Incheon, South Korea, Nov. 24, 2010. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

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.