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