The 60-year old war on the Korean peninsula flared back to life today, perhaps briefly, or perhaps not.  North Korea showered artillery fire on an island in the south, killing two South Korea Marines and prompting a return volley of fire.  Seoul put its armed forces on alert while everyone waits to see whether Pyongyang has decided to restart the Korean War:

North Korea launched a massive artillery barrage on a South Korean island Tuesday, killing two South Korean marines, wounding at least 14 others and setting more than 60 buildings ablaze in the most serious confrontation since the North’s sinking of a South Korean submarine in March.

South Korea immediately responded with its own artillery barrage and put its fighter jets on high alert, bringing the two sides – which technically have remained in a state of war since the Korean armistice in 1953 – close to the brink of a major conflagration.

South Korea called the shelling of the civilian-inhabited island of Yeonpyeong, which lies near the disputed maritime border separating North and South Korea, a breach of the 57-year-old armistice that halted the Korean War without a peace agreement.

The North fired an estimated 200 artillery shells onto the island, and the South returned fire with about 80 shells from its own howitzers. The attack began just after 2:30 p.m.

More than likely, Kim Jong-Il has three goals in mind:

  • Attention – The six-party talks have stalled for a while.  With their recent disclosure of a new uranium-enrichment facility, this is probably sword-rattling to focus attention on Pyongyang and to get its enemies to cough up more concessions.
  • Test – Kim has tested the mettle of every American President to determine how committed each is to South Korea’s security.  Last year’s provocative missile launches showed that Barack Obama wasn’t committed at all to missile defense, and the sinking of a South Korean ship a few months ago didn’t prompt much more than finger-wagging from Washington.  Nor did we do much after seizing a ship exporting banned arms to Burma.
  • Succession – Kim is very ill, and he needs to secure the succession to the third generation of his family.  It will be difficult for any opponents in the military to suppress his son while he has them busy in a Great Patriotic War.  It will be especially difficult if this attack nets the DPRK tangible concessions in negotiations with the US and Japan.

So far, the response has been predictable.  China, Kim’s closest ally, has called for a return to the six-party talks — even though the revelation of the new uranium-enrichment facility violates all of the agreements Kim made in that process.  If it’s a temper tantrum, it’s getting the desired result, at least for the moment.

Addendum: This incident also shows the anachronistic priorities of the Obama administration on foreign policy and international security.  Obama has pressed the Senate for immediate action on a new START treaty, whose predecessor aimed at ending an arms race with a country that literally no longer exists and an enemy that has since stopped being an acute military threat to the US.  Meanwhile, the nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran continue apace, with no sense of urgency by this administration except when provocations like this occur.

Update: Note to the Washington Post: The ship that North Korea sank was a surface ship, not a submarine.  A North Korean submarine likely fired the torpedoes that sunk the Cheonan.