North Korean Attack Forces China’s Hand

North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island is putting further pressure on Beijing to disavow its communist ally.

North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea today has revived tensions in North East Asia. At least two South Korean marines were killed in the attack; fifteen were injured. Three civilians were among the wounded.

Approximately one hundred rounds of artillery hit Yeonpyeong island which lies just twelve kilometers off the North Korean coastline west of the South Korean mainland Tuesday morning. The two Koreas have clashed near the islands twice before. In 1999 and 2002, North Korean patrol ships crossed the disputed maritime border and confronted South Korean vessels in the area.

In response to the latest incident, South Korean armed forces raised their level of combat readiness and fired more than eighty rounds of artillery in retaliation. The firing between the two sides is reported to have lasted for about an hour. South Korean fighter jets were deployed to counter the attack.

The South Korean authorities have urged their counterparts in the North to restraint. President Lee Myung-bak pledged to “carefully manage the situation from further escalating.” The United States were quick to offer support with the White House reiterating America’s commitment “to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability.”

The North Koreans have accused the South of initiating the exchange, threatening “merciless” strikes if the violence continues.

The shelling of Yeonpyeong follows trouble in Korea earlier this year when a South Korean corvette was torpedoed and sunk by a North Korean submarine. Pyongyang denied involvement at the time, threatening “all out war” should the South respond militarily. In conjunction with the United States, Seoul then organized naval exercises in the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea which were condemned by the North as acts of aggression.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remains a matter of concern with both South Korea and its allies in the West. The regime recently announced to the world that it was nearing the final stages of uranium enrichment and has been testing intercontinental ballistic missiles this year.

As North Korea will keep inventing crises in order to legitimize its crumbling and antiquated regime, Beijing will eventually run out of excuses to shield its communist ally from repercussions.

There is mounting discord among the Chinese leadership over how to cope with North Korea’s bellicosity. The division is reflective of China’s two camps. On the one hand are the hardliners who occupy prominent posts in the military and at Communist Party schools. They suspect that the United States are conniving to deceive China and keep it poor. On the other side stand internationally-oriented bureaucrats, including many in the Foreign Ministry and banking sector, who want to maintain peaceful ties with the West.

Chinese civilian leaders have expressed growing puzzlement and anger about the North’s behavior. Although the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday stated that “relevant facts need to be verified” before it can contemplate an official response to the incident, it also expressed its “concern”.