Following North Korea’s deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island, the United States is sending an aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula for military exercises.
Pyongyang’s attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Tuesday killed two South Korean civilians, two soldiers and left 20 others wounded. It marked the worst incident of violence between the two countries since the Korean War, which ended in 1953 following a signed truce.
Possibly in response to South Korean military games taking place at the time, Pyongyang launched around 170 artillery shells at the island, which is situated in the Yellow Sea just 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) from the North Korean coast.
The South Korean military immediately returned fire and scrambled fighter jets in response.
Seoul has threatened "enormous retaliation" if the North attacks again
At least one media report out of Seoul, quoting an unnamed naval official, suggested there could have been “considerable North Korean casualties” as a result of Seoul’s retaliation. The media blackout in the North, however, makes it nearly impossible to substantiate the claims.
In response to the North’s lethal actions, the United States on Wednesday dispatched an aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, from Japan to take part in exercises with South Korea in a “show of strength and solidarity.” These latest naval exercises will run from Sunday until Wednesday. The United States already stations 28,500 troops in South Korea.
US defense analysts have given many possible reasons for North Korea’s attack, including an effort to increase its negotiating power when and if the stalled six-party talks open again and a response to the painful sanctions that have been leveled against Pyongyang over its nuclear program.
There is also the theory that North Korea is suffering a bit of an internal power struggle, as the reclusive and frail North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il prepares to hand over power to his son, Kim Jong-un, who was made a general in September.
Bad timing for war games?
Six-party talks involving the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program have been stalled since April 2009. Since then, North Korea, isolated as it is from most of the world, has set out on a course of irrational, unpredictable and – as Tuesday morning confirmed – very dangerous behavior.
But Tuesday was just the tipping point in a long string of tense moments.
In May, for example, Seoul accused North Korea of sinking a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March, which killed 46 sailors. South Korea halted all trade with the communist North, while prohibiting North Korean ships from entering Seoul's waters.
The White House calls the sanctions "entirely appropriate."
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il warned of retaliation if Seoul blamed Pyongyang for the incident.
"We will swiftly respond to any punishment, acts of revenge or sanctions that violate our national interest by taking strong measures, including a full-scale war," the North Korean defense ministry said in statement.
Just one day before North Korea’s surprise attack, Siegfried Hecker, a US scientist who had been granted a rare visit to the communist country, said he was “stunned” after being shown around a modern uranium enrichment facility equipped with more than 1,000 centrifuges and an "ultra-modern control room".
Hours before the artillery fire incident occurred, America's top envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said that the US could not "contemplate resuming negotiations while active programs are under way".
South Korea says the attack on the island began after North Korea sent several messages protesting against military exercises being held near the island, which lies 3km (two miles) from the disputed maritime border.
South Korea began an annual military exercise in the area on Monday.
Meanwhile, China, which may be North Korea’s last friend in the world, has limited its comments on the conflict to calling for “restraint” from both sides.
"We hope the parties do more to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said in Beijing on Tuesday.
Russia, which shares a small border with North Korea, is anticipating a formal announcement by the UN Security Council regarding Tuesday’s incident, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
"I hope the UN Security Council will express its opinion in the near future. And this will help calm the situation. The parties should realize their responsibility," Lavrov said at a press conference in Moscow on Thursday, as reported by Interfax.
"The Security Council members are already holding consultations on this issue," he acknowledged.
Meanwhile, The Russian Border Guard Service is closely following developments between North and South Korea and is on alert, Border Guard Service chief Vladimir Pronichev said at a news conference in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
"We are concerned by the current spell of tensions. We have informed our Coast Guard so our security will be guaranteed," Pronichev said.
Robert Bridge, RT