BY DANIEL SCHEARF – Asian nations have called for calm after North Korea fired artillery shells on a South Korean island, causing the death of at least two marines and military retaliation from Seoul. Regional political analysts say the attack could be a strategic move by Pyongyang or possibly a sign of internal political wrangling.
North Korea’s attack Tuesday and South Korea’s retaliation raised concerns in Asia of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Pyongyang fired scores of artillery shells onto the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, causing several casualties and setting fire to buildings.
South Korea’s military returned fire and Seoul vowed a stronger response to any further provocation.
Pyongyang claims South Korea fired first.
Australia called the North Korean attack a grave provocation.
North Korea’s main ally, China, issued a statement that did not assign blame but expressed concern and called for talks. Russia issued a similar statement.
Carl Thayer, a regional security specialist at the Australian Defense Force Academy, says Pyongyang often lashes out to increase its leverage in negotiations.
“When they feel themselves cornered, when they want to gain a concession, when they want to push back other countries that will now then hunker down and not condemn North Korea for fear of seeing the situation escalate,” said Thayer. “It’s a kind of spoiling role and a kind of brinkmanship to try to manipulate a political process in North Korea’s favor that they see as going against them.”
Thayer says the North Korean attack could also be a response to South Korean military exercises near a disputed maritime border.
It came just days after North Korea unveiled a hidden uranium enrichment program that nuclear experts say appears quite advanced.
It also comes as a United States envoy is in China to discuss efforts to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear programs.
Regional political analysts say the attack could also be a sign of internal wrangling after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il put his son Kim Jong Un in place to succeed him.
After the exchange of artillery fire Tuesday, some Asian financial markets fell.
“If there’s something going on in the North, for example a succession problem, in-fighting that is pitting one faction in the North against another, that is going to have a more serious reaction than the bombing,” said Bob Broadfoot, the managing director of Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong. “But, I think the bombing will be absorbed by the markets in Asia quite quickly, in a matter of days.”
Tensions have been high between North and South Korea since March when Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking one of its navy ships, killing more than 40 sailors.
North Korea denies it was responsible and rejects an international investigation that said one of its torpedoes hit the ship.