South Korea Scrambles Jets in Retaliation for North Korean Fire on Populated Area

I was going to relegate this story to Links, but it is escalating before my eyes.

North Korea is known for saber rattling and firing rockets that conveniently fall in the ocean when the verging-on-starvation nation needs a handout. But even at the outset, its latest move looked uncomfortably more belligerent than its usual ploys.

Initial reports, such as one in the Wall Street Journal, described the North Korean attack, and indicated the response was local at that juncture. The updates give more details of the extent of the attack and the South Korean response, which now includes sending jets to the area. First the Journal on the North Korean barrage:

North Korea fired artillery rockets at South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island Tuesday afternoon, setting houses on fire in its small villages and injuring several people.

Photos sent to South Korean TV stations by residents of nearby So-yeonpyeong island showed multiple plumes of smoke rising over its larger neighbor.

South Korea returned fire and 14 of its soldiers were injured, military officials said. The military dispatched fighter jets to the area. A spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chief of Staff said “scores of rounds” were fired by the North.

“The whole neighborhood is on fire,” said Na Young-ok, a 46-year-old woman who has lived on the island for 20 years. She was reached at a bomb shelter when reached by The Wall Street Journal. “I think countless houses are on fire, but no fire truck is coming. We have a fire station but the shots are intermittently coming.”

Ms. Na said a military base on the island was on fire. She said she was with about 50 people in the shelter and her child was in a similar shelter at the school on the island. She didn’t know whether people were injured.

The Washington Post provides more context:

Tensions between the two Koreas also remain tense after the sinking in March of a South Korean warship in which 46 sailors died. Seoul has blamed a North Korean torpedo, while Pyongyang has denied any responsibility.

The countries’ western maritime boundary has long been a flash point between the two Koreas. The North does not recognize the border that was unilaterally drawn by the United Nations at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War.

North and South Korea have fought three bloody skirmishes near the maritime border in recent years, most recently in November 2009.

Bloomberg tells us Mr. Market is not happy:

Asian stocks and U.S. index futures extended losses while the yen dropped after North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire. The euro fell on speculation an election in Ireland will hinder the nation’s aid talks.

The MSCI Asia-Pacific excluding Japan Index declined 2 percent to 455.42 as of 2:45 p.m. in Hong Kong, set for its biggest loss since Nov. 12. Futures on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index sank 0.9 percent while those for the Euro Stoxx 50 Index lost 0.6 percent. The yen weakened 0.4 percent to 83.63 per dollar. Japan’s markets are closed for a holiday….

“A bubbling over of tensions in Korea is another layer of uncertainty for markets that they don’t need to contend with,” said Tim Schroeders, who helps manage about $1 billion at Pengana Capital Ltd. in Melbourne. “There’s enough going on in terms of European debt problems and Chinese inflation without having to deal with erupting geopolitical tensions.”

Yes, I’m sure investors deem it mighty discourteous to have a big international row now, particularly when the end of the year is a time of generally lower liquidity. The Financial Times’ John Dizard said that the smart money was betting that the eurozone crisis wouldn’t erupt in full form till late second quarter or August. Other events may conspire to give them a rough ride sooner than they expected.

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  1. charles 2

    Sounds more like a reaction from the naval Wargames that are currently going on nearby. North-Korea and China already expressed their displeasure at it. Highly choreographed from these twos. North Korea is trying to bolter the fortunes of thenew Kim, and China is asserting itself as a regional power.

  2. David

    Yes, maybe the new Kim has to show his colleagues that he is tough enough so that no one objects when he later becomes the new leader.

    1. East Coast Cynic

      It does sound like Kim the Younger making his bones with the military in order to ascend to the top spot.

      We should really worry when NK fire their ballistic missiles on Seoul.

  3. attempter

    Here’s Stratfor’s “Red Alert” this morning. At the link there’s also a map.

    North Korea and South Korea have reportedly traded artillery fire Nov. 23 across the disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea to the west of the peninsula. Though details are still sketchy, South Korean news reports indicate that around 2:30 p.m. local time, North Korean artillery shells began landing in the waters around Yeonpyeongdo, one of the South Korean-controlled islands just south of the NLL. North Korea has reportedly fired as many as 200 rounds, some of which struck the island, injuring at least 10 South Korean soldiers, damaging buildings and setting fire to a mountainside. South Korea responded by firing some 80 shells of its own toward North Korea, dispatching F-16 fighter jets to the area and raising the military alert to its highest level.

    South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has convened an emergency Cabinet meeting, and Seoul is determining whether to evacuate South Koreans working at inter-Korean facilities in North Korea. The barrage from North Korea was continuing at 4 p.m. Military activity appears to be ongoing at this point, and the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff are meeting on the issue. No doubt North Korea’s leadership is also convening.

    The North Korean attack comes as South Korea’s annual Hoguk military exercises are under way. The exercises — set to last nine days and including as many as 70,000 personnel from all branches of the South Korean military — span from sites in the Yellow Sea including Yeonpyeongdo to Seoul and other areas on the peninsula itself. The drills have focused in particular on cross-service coordination and cooperation in recent years.

    Low-level border skirmishes across the demilitarized zone and particularly the NLL are not uncommon even at the scale of artillery fire. In March, the South Korean naval corvette ChonAn was sunk in the area by what is broadly suspected to have been a North Korean torpedo, taking tensions to a peak in recent years. Nov. 22 also saw South Korean rhetoric about accepting the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula, though the United States said it has no plans at present to support such a redeployment.

    While the South Korean reprisals — both artillery fire in response by self-propelled K-9 artillery and the scrambling of aircraft — thus far appear perfectly consistent with South Korean standard operating procedures, the sustained shelling of a populated island by North Korea would mark a deliberate and noteworthy escalation.

    The incident comes amid renewed talk of North Korea’s nuclear program, including revelations of an active uranium-enrichment program, and amid rumors of North Korean preparations for another nuclear test. But North Korea also on Nov. 22 sent a list of delegates to Seoul for Red Cross talks with South Korea, a move reciprocated by the South, ahead of planned talks in South Korea set for Thursday. The timing of the North’s firing at Yeonpyeongdo, then, seems to contradict the other actions currently under way in inter-Korean relations. With the ongoing leadership transition in North Korea, there have been rumors of discontent within the military, and the current actions may reflect miscommunications or worse within the North’s command-and-control structure, or disagreements within the North Korean leadership.

    1. kevin de bruxelles

      Thanks for the Stratfor piece.

      The timing of the North’s firing at Yeonpyeongdo, then, seems to contradict the other actions currently under way in inter-Korean relations

      One other explanation is that North Korea was simply using the standard carrot and stick approach to the current South Korean naval exercises in disputed waters. The North wanted these maneuvers cancelled so they offered the carrot of talks on a range of issues to try to entice SK. When the exercises went ahead anyway then NK’s responded with the stick of shelling a disputed island. It seems pretty straight forward.

      And since the standard of living is so low in the North they pretty much have nothing to lose in a limited conflict. The South are in a more delicate situation as any escalation could have serious economic impacts. That probably explains the wimpy response from South Korea so far.

    1. Francois T

      That could very well be because of the familiarity effect. SK market subdued reaction as a manifestation of “We’ve been there before” while (perhaps) missing some distinctive features of this incident.

      Time will tell. One thing is sure tough; this is tricky stuff.

  4. Maju

    I for one first suspect of an insider job in these cases. This was surely the case with the Cheonan (that’s the North Korean and Chinese version and I have no reason to believe Uncle Same before them).

    I hoped anyhow that Castro was wrong when he forecast a war against North Korea some months ago. It seems that it were my hopes the one which were wrong.

    Brace yourselves. This looks very very ugly. :(

  5. b

    According to the BBC, it was the South that made the first shots and the North responded in kind.
    Pyongyang accused the South of firing first. The Southern military said it had conducted exercises but shelling was directed away from the North.

    A spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korean shells had started falling in the waters off the island of Yeonpyeong at 1434 local time (0534 GMT).

    But North Korea’s supreme military command blamed South Korea for the incident.

    “The South Korean enemy, despite our repeated warnings, committed reckless military provocations of firing artillery shells into our maritime territory near Yeonpyeong island beginning 1300 (0400 GMT),” the state-run KCNA news agency quoted it as saying.

    South Korean military officials later said that it had been conducting regular military drills in the sea off Yeonpyeong before the incident, but that no fire was aimed towards North Korea.

    “We were conducting usual military drills and our test shots were aimed toward the west, not the north,” one official told Reuters news agency.

    “Stray” test shots? Cui bono?

    1. Arciero

      “SK was having a military drill – and they admitted to firiing a few rounds shortly before the NK response.”

      that’s why its called a drill, otherwise its just a parade, genius.

  6. Paul Tioxon

    The North does as it pleases. There are interpretations of its extremely violent expressions. Of course it is really hard to know for sure anything about this dictatorship. It seems clear to me that given their absolute reliance on China, they are acting out not so much at the instance of China, but under their aegis when they do. It is unimaginable that China would allow anyone on their borders to get Nuclear weapons production capabilities. They can shut this nation down by cutting of the food and fuel that allows it to exist at all. They seem to be useful more as a destabilizing provocateur than any real threat in itself. From the capture of the USS Pueblo and the torture of its crew before eventual release, until the recent sinking of a S Korean naval ship, Cheonan, with the death of 42 and denial by the N Koreans, China and Russia of any N Korean complicity, N Korea serves as the military equivalent of the artist as the existential symbol of freedom in the eyes of our enemies, who can not act out in the violent manner that the North does on a regular basis.

  7. Eclaire

    Regard how bat-shit crazy the US becomes when competing ideologies/cultures/races nudge onto its borders. Central America and Cuba come to mind. The US has and had had numerous military bases in Japan and South Korea (I think I read that 30,000 US troops are in South Korea), the “backyard” of China. We’re dug into their neighborhood, bristling with weapons.
    Given the ongoing rise to power of China and its need to dominate the region, something is going to explode, sooner or later. But probably only after years of insults, jabs and minor skirmishes.

    But, could be tomorrow.

  8. Jim the Skeptic

    Winter is coming on fast and North Korea fears the Winter!

    For years their pitiful regime has been propped up by gifts of food and oil from the South Koreans and the USA. The hope was that they would give up their nuclear ambitions which the North has not done.

    The latest South Korean administration is tired of the game and has been getting tough. Any food and oil aid from them is likely to be more meager than the past.

    This week we have news that North Koreans showed off a large Uranium Enrichment Centrifuge Plant. That disclosure should have made it obvious that they were about to “go for broke”, and this attack on a populated island is just another gambit.

    We should not encourage a deluded dictatorship. After a cold hungry winter maybe they will give up their threats to the global community.

    I understand that they may provoke a war but that was always the threat with their owning nuclear weapons. Read up on England’s Prime minister Neville Chamberlain and appeasement.

  9. Kelly

    I’d check out the analysis on the Asian Times website. Some of the other replies bring up the same points in their articles. Also maybe a different take than the ones from the WSJ, WP and BBC.

  10. Jim the Skeptic

    From the Asia Times:

    A long winded discussion of the possibility of the USA returning tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula. That is very unlikely and they would be irrelevant anyway. North Korea does not fear an opposing army with tactical nuclear weapons.

    North Korea would be more likely to fear that a modern air force would be able to take down the air defenses around the capital before China could intervene.

    This discussion is a little better:,7340,L-3988906,00.html

    The North Korean’s most serious problem is a long cold hungry winter.

    1. h0ly cow

      The minute US put tactical nuke in korean peninsula, all deals are off. All that nonsese about Obama/peace/no nuke are going to be called off.

      Korean peninsula is about US vs. china. US putting nuke in south Korea means US is threatening china with nuclear. So then it’s China and russia move, they are now unbounded by any “treaty” etc, since US will have to break a lot of treaty putting nuke in korean peninsula.

      This is not about credibility anymore, but direct nuclear escalation. Second casualty will be south korean economy, the neocon anywhere from rightwing aipac type to Kurgman on the left already want war. (reducing economic competition/trade surplus/selling weapon)

      But If I have to predict the outcome: It’s obama, plenty of talk, but basically nothing happens. First thing the North korean will do is make sure they are doing what they are going to do. It ill be interesting what Obama will do if another ship sinks, specially US ship.

      then thing will spiral out of control…

      PS. NK has ripped out the armistice for sea border. And as usual, it was thought as a joke.

  11. Perfect Stranger

    Just consider this:

    70,000 SK military troops
    50 Warships
    90 Helicopters
    500 Airplanes
    31st US Marine Expeditionary Unit
    US Seventh Air Force from Osan Air Base in South Korea.

    are involved in this so-called military drill at border, and not that far from China?

    Since “world community” haven’t brought their “evidence” of sinking Cheonan – they actually childishly falsified them – they (SK/US) resumed to more belligerent action, open confrontation. The chain of provocations toward North is fairly long – their response was: showing off their technological advance in nuclear field, in conditions when NK population is starving.

    In meantime US is making pressure to South to open its market to the US beef which they (SK) vehemently are opposing. While US support Japan in its territorial dispute with both: China, Russia, as well as, countries that are having claim to islands in South China Sea they are asking/demanding from Japan to open market to agricultural commodities. Somebody asked: to whose benefit? I think this, above, speak for itself.

    Both regimes in Korean peninsula are rigid, militarily ones. They are just dancing as Puppet Masters are playing, it is well known and old tactics of the colonial hegemons – fomenting hate among vassals in order to maintain its supremacy. One should not go further away than to read Zbigniew Brzezinski.

    1. Paul Repstock

      Who benifits??
      …Why everybody that was in the information loop..Doh!
      Why do you think these “incidents” never ever occur on a friday night or saturday. The markets are closed dummy! Something has to pay for the opulent lifestyle of “The Kims”.

      Also, every time something news worthy happens on this border, both the North and the South benifit.

  12. Jim the Skeptic

    These provocations usually happen in the spring. So why now?

    North Korea faces a 542,000 tonnes shortage of cereal grains in 2010-2011. That assumes they buy 325,000 tonnes on the commercial market. So they need a total of 867,000 tonnes.

    In August 2010 Russia announced that it was banning the export of grains until 31 December 2010.

    Dated 14 September 2010 “Top Chinese economic officials have in recent weeks issued a string of assurances about China’s grain self-sufficiency, downplaying a surge in grain imports this year that could portend a potentially seismic shift in the global grain trade.”

    So if the North Koreans can’t get that grain from Russia or China then where will they get it?

    Last weekend they showcased their new large Uranium Enrichment Centrifuge Plant. Then Tuesday they hit a populated South Korean island with artillery fire.

    What is the message? We are a nuclear power. We have a very large military and are very likely to use it in response to any slight provocation. Feed us.

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