China may be criticizing North Korea privately for its November 23rd artillery attack on a South Korean town (Yeonpyeong Island), but it is publically chastising South Korea and the U.S. for conducting naval training exercises off the west coast of Korea, in international waters. This sort of thing has been a favorite communist diplomatic ploy for over half a century. It goes like this, the communists concentrate on building up their military forces, but keep details secret and insist they are all for peace. But at the same time, democracies, which have a free media, are criticized for the size and disposition of their armed forces, and for holding training exercises (which the communist nations cannot afford as many of). If the democracies make the same accusations, the communist states deny everything and insist that it's none of your business. As absurd as this sounds, it's what's been going on for decades. This drill has become part of the media landscape and isn't really noticed. But occasionally it gets violent. In the 1950s and 60s, Russia and North Korea would attack American intelligence ships and aircraft outside their air space or coastal waters (as recognized by international law) for "spying." As recently as 2001, a U.S. Navy recon aircraft was hit, and damaged, over international waters, by a Chinese fighter. China has more recently ordered state owned fishing vessels to deliberately get in the way of American and Japanese warships who were getting too close to China, despite being in international waters. It's the old "what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable" ploy taken to a deadly extreme.
What the North Koreans are saying to South Korea is "give us more food and oil or we will keep attacking you in the name of self-defense". North Korea is starving again, and the leadership (representing about ten percent of the population that are well fed) need help and don't want to risk their control of North Korea to get it. Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan are fed up with over a decade of North Korean extortion and are no longer willing to provide free food to North Korea unless the nuclear weapons program is shut down. North Korea refuses to consider this, and has come up with a new tactic; fatal warning shots. Over half of South Korea's population (and more than a third of its GDP) is within range of thousands of North Korean 170mm guns (range of 50 kilometers) and 240 mm multiple rocket launchers (range of 45 kilometers). Actually, North Korea has hundreds of ballistic missiles capable of hitting anywhere in South Korea. What if North Korea demands that free food and oil shipments resume, or more South Korea towns (or neighborhoods in cities) will be hit? What's South Korea going to do, when North Korea threatens to launch a major offensive if the south fights back and tries to destroy North Korea guns, rockets and ballistic missiles? Because North Korea has the ability to do major damage to the southern capital (where half the population and a quarter of the GDP are), the South Koreans have more to lose than the northerners. Sprawling Seoul is 40-50 kilometers from the North Korea border. The city alone is 600 square kilometers, and the suburbs even larger. There are over 17,000 people per square kilometer (45,000 per square mile) in the city. The southerners know the north has nothing to lose, are desperate and heavily armed. What do you do?
Last March, a North Korean submarine torpedoed and sank a South Korean corvette (killing 46 sailors) , in South Korean waters. North Korea denied that it was responsible (although the attacks was played in the north as very much a North Korean military operation). The north noted that the south did not retaliate.
Many South Koreans are now demanding a military response, but the majority of southerners will do almost anything to avoid a major war. Over the last decade, southerners have become less tolerant of northern extortion tactics, and have cut off most aid. So the north has done what any criminal gang would do, it has sent a message. The question is, do you call in the cops, or give in? In this case, it's uncertain if the "cops" (U.S. and South Korea armed forces) can do anything that will work. Military commanders point out that the North Korean military is not invincible, and is vulnerable. Nearly two decades of food shortages, and economic collapse up north have had an effect on the military. North Korean troops, who grew up during the first rounds of famine in the 1990s, are noticeably shorter than the previous generation. There's not enough money to train, or maintain the vast North Korea arsenal of vehicles, weapons and other equipment. There's lots of evidence of this, from satellite photos, electronic chatter, and the thousands of North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea in the last few years (and many more who made it to China, and can be reached by journalists, and intelligence agencies.) But the North Korean leadership knows this as well. Without massive aid, the northern military will continue to rot, and the North Korean people will become more unruly. Already, anti-government graffiti is showing up in the north. This was unheard of until recently. The security agencies up there are becoming corrupt, as a result of the shortages, and the creation of a limited market economy to try and prevent more widespread starvation and privation. Many in the north, especially in the ruling Kim family, would rather go out with a bang, rather than a whimper (or a firing squad). The U.S. says it will not reward bad behavior, but South Korea and Japan, being within range of North Korean weapons, are not so sure of that approach.
The South Korean military has a third fewer troops in uniform than the north, but they are better armed and trained. However, North Korea has not been at war since 1953, and South Korea since the late 1960s (when they had troops in Vietnam). Armed forces tend to get stiff and inefficient in peacetime. But both nations have most of their troops lined up along the mountainous border (the DMZ, or demilitarized zone). There are plenty of fortifications, and plans for the south to keep the northerners out. The basic drill has always been that the north would try to invade again (as it did in 1950), with the southerners and their American allies defending. Based on historical experience, the north could do a lot of damage, but not win. The north has chemical weapons, and it is feared they would use them. The north also, technically, has nuclear weapons. But based on two tests of their nukes, it is not believed they have a weapon that could be delivered. The north could make the big push, but the southerners and their American allies would eventually prevail. The invasion is a threat, not a solution.
Artillery firing was again heard on Yeonpyeong Island today, but this time, no shells or rockets fell on the island. North Korean artillery was practicing again, within its own territory. You'll be hearing a lot more North Korean artillery practice, because they have large stocks of aging munitions that must either be fired or disposed of because the stuff is too dangerous to use. After a few decades, the chemical components of rockets and artillery shells decompose and become unreliable. But North Korea can't fire all this stuff, since each time you fire a shell it damages the barrel, which must be replaced, in some cases, after only a few hundred shells are fired. It's similar for rocket launchers, with heat of the rockets causing some damage to the launch tubes and the launcher (or launch vehicle) in general. The north cannot afford replacements. North Korea's poverty since 1991 has meant it could not afford to replace its older munitions like it used to in the past, and there's a lot more old stuff to worry about. Fuel shortages mean that the old munitions can't even be trucked to coast and dumped at sea, or buried on land (to provide a hazard for over a century). So a lot of these increasingly unstable ammo just rots in storage bunkers.
November 25, 2010: The South Korean Defense Minister resigned, a victim of an impossible situation. While South Korea forces took nearly half an hour to return fire on the 23rd, South Korean voters insist that the military be careful when dealing with the north. No one wants a war, and the South Korean population is willing to pay a high price to avoid one. The North Korean are pushing to find out just how high. The South Korea Defense Ministry did announce that it would send more military forces to the islands off the west coast that are within artillery and rocket range of North Korea. This will provide the northerners with more targets, and set the stage for some impressive artillery duels.
November 24, 2010: In the north, the attack on Yeonpyeong Island was described as self-defense, and Kim Jong Un (the son and heir to ruler Kim Jong Il) was given credit for the order to fire, and described as the "Youth Captain" (his dad is called "The General.") Electrical power was kept on in most parts of the country for a few extra hours so that the media could announce this latest victory. There was not much public reaction. Fuel shortages have reduced electrical power to only a few hours a day in most parts of the country.
November 23, 2010: North Korea artillery fired about 200 shells and rockets at South Korean Yeonpyeong Island, starting at about 2:30 PM and going on for about two hours. There is a village there, with about 1,700 people who make a living fishing. There's also a military base. Four people were killed by the attack, and dozens injured (most of them military personnel). At least 30 homes or commercial buildings were destroyed by direct hits or fire. Most of the shells and rockets appeared to land in the water. Most of the population promptly fled by boat. North Korea said it fired because South Korea and the United States refused to call off naval exercises off the coast, and had conducted other military training exercises that the north considered a threat. South Korea artillery on Yeonpyeong Island, after a getting permission from the Defense Ministry, began returning fire.
November 20, 2010: The U.S. put sanctions on two more North Korean companies, which were believed to be managing the personal funds of the ruling Kim family. The sanctions have become more of a problem for the north in the past few years, especially those blocking access to the international banking system. This has made the North Korea government very angry, but the United States refuses to back off.
November 19, 2010: North Korea has revealed that it has built a centrifuge facility (possibly with Iranian assistance) to enrich uranium enough to be used in nuclear weapons. Satellite photos also revealed that the north is building another nuclear reactor.