A frustrated North Korea is lashing out again, this time with a deadly volley of artillery aimed at reminding rival South Korea — and the world — that it will not be ignored.
The barrage of shots fired Tuesday at a South Korean island lying within sight of its shores did not come out of nowhere. For weeks, North Korea has been angling for credit for reaching out to the U.S. and South Korea, and has warned that the cool response would come at a cost.
The destruction that set homes ablaze, sent civilians fleeing for underground shelters and killed two South Korean marines may have been more than Pyongyang bargained for in its game of chicken with the South.
But it gets attention, which is what Pyongyang wants as it seeks to restart negotiations to barter its nuclear program for much-needed aid.
It can be hard to remember in bustling, cosmopolitan Seoul that the Korean peninsula remains in a state of war.
Sixty years after the fighting began, the U.S.-backed South has risen to become the world’s 15th-largest economy, an example of industriousness and pluck.
Two weeks ago, Seoul basked in the limelight of hosting more than 30 world leaders for the Group of 20 summit in what was seen as the country’s diplomatic debut. Next week, South Korea will make its case for the right to hold the 2022 World Cup.
But a rising South Korea does not sit well with its poorer northern neighbor. Once the richer of the two Koreas, the North has suffered over the years from the loss of Soviet aid, economic mismanagement and natural disasters that destroyed its precious few resources.
And as the rest of the communist bloc has crumbled, North Korea has remained staunch in its “juche” policy of self-reliance, continuing to build up a nuclear program that has earned it pariah status with the West.
Its nuclear bombs and its unpredictability remain North Korea’s most valuable assets, and Pyongyang has played its cards shrewdly over the decades.
The last two years have been a particularly delicate time in Pyongyang, with leader Kim Jong Il reportedly suffering a stroke in 2008 and then paving the way to name his youngest son as his successor.
But Kim Jong Un, still in his 20s and known as the Young General, won’t have the benefit of decades of preparation that his father had before taking over from his father, the late North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.
There are at least three things Kim will want to secure before he can comfortably hand over the reins: loyalty to the Young General, economic stability and political security ensuring the regime’s grip on power.
Time may be running out. Health issues notwithstanding, Kim is likely to want to formally anoint his heir in 2012, the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth, a significant milestone that would cement the family’s ruling status in ritualistic North Korea.
Winning the military’s loyalty will be key in a society that operates under a “military first” policy.
The armistice signed in 1953 was designed to keep the peace, but North Korea has never accepted the maritime border drawn by the U.N. at the close of the Korean War, and the western waters have long been a flashpoint.
They’ve fought three deadly skirmishes there since 1999. The last one, a year ago, was particularly humiliating, with the North suffering one death and more wounded.
Revenge may have been behind the plot to take down South Korea’s Cheonan warship, which investigators say was torn in two by a North Korean torpedo in March. If the young son wanted to earn the military’s loyalty, it would have been a prize: 46 South Koreans died in the worst attack on Seoul’s military since the Korean War.
Pyongyang denies involvement, as it has past provocations.
However, neither nation wants another war, and both have sought ways to repair relations without losing face.
Since taking office in February 2008, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak has been sticking to a hard-line policy of demanding concrete action on denuclearization before offering the North any significant aid.
Yet in recent weeks, he has shown a limited willingness to yield, offering North Korea a shipment of rice and other humanitarian aid to help with devastating flooding and backing off demands that Pyongyang apologize for the Cheonan sinking.
North Korea, which is suffering under U.N. economic sanctions for its nuclear defiance, also has been reaching out, eager to get back to talks on winning aid in exchange for nuclear concessions.
Pyongyang has been putting out feelers in unprecedented fashion, allowing foreign journalists to cover a massive 65th anniversary parade for its ruling Workers’ Party that served as an international debut for his son and heir.
Both sides also agreed to let families divided since the Korean War meet at a North Korean resort for reunions that inevitably draw attention to the emotional toll the peninsula’s division has taken. There are rumors that top-level aides were trying to negotiate a summit between their two leaders.
But Pyongyang has become frustrated by the slow pace of restoring relations with Seoul and eventually the U.S., a key step toward its goal of securing aid and stability. That impatience has bubbled over into petulance.