By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; A01
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.
A senior U.S. military official said the United States was urging restraint by South Korea, saying, "Nobody right now wants to see this escalated."
The attack occurred in a region that has long been a flash point between the two Koreas. The North does not recognize the maritime border that was unilaterally drawn by the United Nations at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The two have battled three times in those seas in recent years, most recently in November 2009, when the South blasted a North Korean warship in an attack that some analysts suggested set the stage for the sinking of the Cheonan in March.
"They waited for approximately four hours after the exercise was over before they started lobbing shells," the senior U.S. military official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of Tuesday's barrage. "It's not like they heard the sound of guns and thought they were under attack and started volleying."
In an official statement, South Korean government spokesman Hong Sang-pyo called the North's action a "clear military provocation" and warned that any further attack would be met with "stern retaliation."
The North Koreans were unrepentant. The military high command said that if the South "encroaches even 0.001 millimeters on our marine territory, our revolutionary forces will continue to respond without mercy." The state-run nightly news said the North had warned the South repeatedly not to hold its military exercises, which thus provoked "a strong physical response."
At the White House, senior officials from the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department and other government agencies gathered to chart a way forward. Obama attended as well. But again, analysts said, that road will be tough.
For one, the United States lacks influential partners in the region. China, which had worked in close coordination with successive presidents when it came to dealing with North Korea, has moved in recent months to embrace Pyongyang and seemingly slow-walk Obama's entreaties to rein in the North.
U.S. envoy Stephen W. Bosworth, the State Department's special representative for North Korea policy, met with counterparts in Beijing on Tuesday but was tight-lipped about the results of the meeting, calling them "very useful." China responded to the attack and to the revelation of the new North Korean nuclear program with caution, calling on all parties to resume talks.
Secondly, even if Tuesday's crisis should subside and somehow talks resume on the nuclear issue, the administration will find itself facing another problem. North Korea will now have not one but two nuclear weapons programs for it to deal with.
North Korea's nuclear program had been based on isolating plutonium, which is easier to track because it involves using nuclear reactors, generally visible to intelligence satellites. A uranium-enrichment program, however, is much easier to conceal. On Nov. 12, Hecker was given a tour of an enrichment facility in a nondescript building with a blue roof in Yongbyon, the site of much of the North's nuclear activity.
"My jaw just dropped," he said, describing a modern facility containing row upon row of centrifuges, capable of enriching uranium. "I was stunned."
Even Hecker, who advocates engagement with North Korea, acknowledges that the revelation complicates any potential talks because such facilities are so easy to hide.
"The more that we have these halls," he said, "it changes the picture."
Correspondent Keith B. Richburg in Beijing and staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.