N. Korea attack leaves U.S. with tough choices

North Korea launched an artillery attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

North Korea's artillery attack on a South Korean island Tuesday, coupled with its choreographed rollout of a new nuclear program, has presented the United States with a massive strategic challenge in one of the most dangerous corners of the world.

The 50-minute barrage on the island of Yeonpyeong - which killed two South Korean marines, wounded at least 19 other people and set buildings and forests ablaze - marked the first time in years that North Korea has trained the firepower of its 1.1 million-strong military on South Korea's civilian population. It prompted a withering round of return fire from South Korean batteries, the scrambling of the South's air force and concerns that the firefight could spiral into all-out war.

Despite North Korean claims that the South fired the first shots during a round of military exercises, U.S. officials said the barrage appeared to have been unprovoked and premeditated.

They noted that the North began firing artillery four hours after the South's guns had fallen silent. Administration sources also said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his third son, the heir apparent Kim Jong Eun, visited troops over the weekend in the region where the barrage originated - apparently as a kind of pep rally.

Indeed, Tuesday's attack on the island off the western coast of the Korean Peninsula appears to have been just as scripted as the nuclear revelations, which Pyongyang has dribbled out in phases over the past month, culminating with the disclosure that it has a uranium-enrichment program. That development had already significantly complicated U.S.-led efforts to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons; in addition to its production of plutonium, the North now has a second way to make a bomb.

The United States, which is obligated by a treaty to defend the South, now faces few good options with regard to the North.

If it declines to hold talks with North Korea unless the government there agrees to give up its nuclear weapons - part of the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience" - Pyongyang could escalate with more artillery barrages or with an attack on a South Korean warship, similar to the one it is accused of launching in March. The government could also conduct a third nuclear test, long rumored to be in the offing, or continue to hawk its nuclear-weapons technology abroad.

On the other hand, if the Obama administration is pulled into talks with the North Koreans, it won't be able to escape the appearance that it is caving in the face of pressure. And even if talks do resume, there is no guarantee that North Korea won't continue the provocations and attacks.

"We've had an underlying philosophy of not rewarding bad behavior with concessions," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "And that philosophy will continue to underline our next steps."

Still, without some form of renewed engagement, analysts such as Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who was shown North Korea's uranium- enrichment program on Nov. 12, worry that North Korea will simply continue along its confrontational path. "You have to address the fundamentals of North Korean security," Hecker said.

For now the Obama administration's primary concern is the security of the South - and ensuring that the situation does not spin out of control.

President Obama learned of the attack at 3:55 a.m., according to a spokesman. He called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday night to tell him that "the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with our close friend and ally" and remains "firmly and fully committed" to South Korea's defense.

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