Pyongyang calling: Koreas exchange artillery fire

North Korea has again shelled waters near the maritime border with South Korea. Local residents say three shells have been fired in the Yellow Sea area on Wednesday following the earlier exchange of fire between the two countries.

A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman, Kim Min-seok, confirmed that South Korea’s army had fired three shells after three North Korean artillery shells fell into waters near the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea.

The shelling that occurred Wednesday near Yeonpyeong Island came as a real surprise to the international community, which truly hopes that there will be no escalation of violence between two Koreas this time, keeping in mind the good progress reached during talks between North and South Korea in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the official North Korean Central News Agency has released a statement claiming that South Korea mistook blasting from a construction project for artillery shelling.

An official from South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff official quickly dismissed North Korea's denial as "out of the question," Yonhap news agency reported.

"We have confirmed that three out of the five North Korean shells fell near the Northern Limit Line," the official said on condition of anonymity, as cited by the news agency. "It's not worth commenting on North Korea's false, unilateral argument."

Relations between the two countries have been even more unstable since November 23 last year, when North Korea launched up to 200 shells on to the very same South Korean island, near the disputed border, killing four people, including two civilians.

Yeonpyeong Island lies to the south of demarcation line set by the UN in 1953, towards the end of the Korean War. Pyongyang has never recognized this demarcation line.

The domestic situation in North Korea remains complicated and North Korean authorities might want to show force to a discontented populace inside and the possible enemies outside.

The two countries technically remain at war following the end of 1950-53 Korean War, but the peace agreement has been evading the two sides since the conditions does not satisfy both sides.

The North Korean domestic economy is drastically down, to a great extent due to successive natural disasters, so times are now different and many things are possible, believes Professor Dr. Rudiger Frank from the University of Vienna.

Modern North Korea is also plagued by an air of uncertainty and insecurity as last year Communist leader Kim Jong-il started the succession process with his youngest son, but how exactly he is going to reign remains uncertain: will it be the third great leader or will he be more like a collective one, as is being done in China?

“These questions are being asked by people in North Korea and that creates a lot of uncertainty and insecurity. For such a monolithic system as North Korea is, such questions and insecurities are really dangerous,” warns Dr. Frank.

It is very unlikely that for the time being North Korea will quit its nuclear ambitions because “it is about the only thing they got to keep them involved in the international community, about the only success Kim Jong-il can show to his people since he took power.”

The international community should prevent nuclear proliferation from North Korea rather than further escalation of the process, the professor believes.

Eric Sirotkin, a US anti-war campaigner, believes that maintaining some instability on the Korean Peninsula may be useful for some sides in the conflict.

When peace seems to get a little bit closer, something happens to make people pull back.”

For example, such flare-ups give more arguments to those who oppose military budget cuts in the US, he says. They can also be used by the South Korean government to refocus international attention from its internal issues.

The US also “maintains some instability” in the region by keeping its military presence there, which perhaps allows it to keep an eye on China, Sirotkin notes.

However, a peace deal is still the only option to the crisis, he stresses, saying that a peace regime should be created in the area.

The United States, South Korea’s closest ally, should be doing more to “patch up” the strained relations between the two Koreas. Having over 28,000 troops in South Korea, the US “has not taken the leadership role in peace,” he observes.

As South Korea is set to change its leadership next year and the North is going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founding father Kim Il Song, the timing seems to be right for the peace process. The parties should “get on board and begin to make peace a priority,” Sirotkin believes.