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Korean tension: A look at the conflict

i'm worried about the threat of north korea

Korean tension: A look at the conflict

By the CNN Wire Staff
November 23, 2010 1:33 p.m. EST
Small-scale skirmishes have flared repeatedly along their land and sea borders over the past six decades.
Small-scale skirmishes have flared repeatedly along their land and sea borders over the past six decades.
  • Tension has been high since the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan
  • A changing situation inside North Korea and the nuclear issue may also be factors, analysts say
  • Yeonpyeong Island also was at the center of a skirmish in January

(CNN) -- A disputed maritime border. Long-standing tensions. And Tuesday, a sharp escalation of hostilities. North and South Korea fired at each other for about an hour on an island that sits off a disputed border. The deadly skirmish raised fears of war between the two rival nations, once again spiking tension in the entire region.

How did the latest hostilities begin?

South Korea said North Korea fired artillery Tuesday toward the border between the two nations. Two South Korean marines were killed and 18 soldiers and civilians were wounded.

South Korea had been conducting maritime military drills, which the North called "war maneuvers."

The North accused the South of "reckless military provocation" for firing dozens of shells inside North Korean territory around the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.

Plumes of smoke billowed from the island of 1,300 people but it was not immediately clear how much damage was incurred. Many residents were fleeing to the South Korean port of Incheon.

Why did this happen?

Tension has been running particularly high in the Korean peninsula after the March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. Tuesday's incident, however, is one of the most serious that has occurred in recent years.

Korean conflict sparks fears of war
North Korean mortar hits island
Sharp tensions on the Korean Peninsula
Gallery: Photos from the Korean War
Map: N. Korea shells S. Korean island

The hostilities come as North Korea is undergoing transition -- the ailing and reclusive leader Kim Jong Il is believed to be in the process of transferring power to his son Kim Jong Un. Some analysts believe upcoming internal changes have prompted North Korea to flex its military muscle in recent days.

Tuesday's violence was also preceded by the revelation of a North Korean uranium enrichment program.

Has this happened before?

Yes, Yeonpyeong Island has come under attack before. Last January, South Korea reported that the North had fired shells that fell in waters north of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border.

North Korea wants that border redrawn farther south.

Over the past six decades, small-scale skirmishes have flared repeatedly along both land and sea borders as each state aims to reunify the peninsula according to its own terms and system of government. Deadly naval clashes occurred along the demarcation line in 1999, 2002 and 2009.

What is the history of conflict?

After Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea became a divided nation, the capitalist South supported by the United States and its Western allies and the communist North an ally of the Soviet Union.

Cold War tensions erupted into war 1950, devastating the peninsula and taking the lives of as many as 2 million people. The fighting ended with a truce, not a treaty, and settled little.

Technically the two Koreas are still at war.

Besides the border skirmishes, other incidents also have proven provocative. In 1968, North Korea dispatched commandos in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korea's president. In 1983, a bombing linked to Pyongyang killed 17 high-level South Korean officials on a visit to Myanmar. In 1987, the North was accused of bombing a South Korean airliner.

What happened with the Cheonan?

South Korea said a North Korean torpedo last March sent the warship Cheonan to the bottom of the Yellow Sea off the Seoul-controlled island of Baengnyeong. The sinking, also in the border area, killed 46 South Korean sailors.

South Korea was outraged by the incident. North Korea vehemently denied any responsibility, even after an international investigating team blamed North Korea. The United Nations Security Council statement condemned the attack but stopped short of placing blame on the North.

Will the two nations go to war?

South Korea put its military on high alert following Tuesday's exchange of fire. But whether that will translate into further military action is impossible to predict.

Events in the past few months suggested a slight thawing of icy relations.

North and South Korea had begun discussions on the possible resumption of reunions of family members separated by the Korean war and North Korea has requested military talks. In early September, the South offered food aid to the impoverished North for the first time in three years.

Given the closed nature of North Korean politics, it's hard to tell what changes the new leadership of Kim Jong Un will entail or whether re-engagement is on the table. Another wild card is the influence of China; some South Koreans fear a Chinese takeover in the event of a North Korean collapse.

Some analysts viewed Tuesday's exchange as North Korea flexing its military muscle in the light of its leadership transition. Others said it was related to the nuclear issue.

How will nuclear talks be affected?

Washington accuses Pyongyang of running a secret uranium-based nuclear program. The United States, along with the two Koreas, Russia, Japan and China, have been involved in what is called the Six Party Talks.

But those talks have been slow and arduous and in limbo since 2008. And after the revelation of the North Korean uranium enrichment facility a few days ago, the resumption of talks seemed in jeopardy.

Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special envoy on North Korean denuclearization, said Tuesday's hostilities will prove a further obstacle.

Choi Jin-wook, senior researcher at the Korea Institute of National Unification, said the North is "frustrated with Washington's response to their uranium program and they think that Washington has almost given up on negotiations with North Korea."

"I think they realize they can't expect anything from Washington or Seoul for several months, so I think they made the provocation," Choi said.

Journalist Andrew Salmon contributed to this report.

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soundoff (204 Comments)
  • An0nym0us2U
    millions of people killed. not good.
  • zizou2006
    U.S.A. keeps poking their nose into all the things in the world soon they will realize that it's too much for them to handle. Hitlor failed because he took on the whole world. Till this date Germany had the strongest army ever in the history and with allies but they failed because it was too much fo... more
  • dylanwebster
    What annoys me is the worlds ignorance to this country's actions. China and North Korea are allies, but that does not mean China should ignore the fact that their ally is war mongering. The US needs to act now. War will happen eventually, no matter what happens. This country need to be freed. They m... more
  • bong2g
    I'm a S.Korean. N.Korea is a really crazy nation. I believe that our troops will protect us. when war breaks out in our nation, i'll fight for my family!!
  • zizou2006
    @ JerseySol seriously mate do u think that invading countries like Iraq and Afghanistan was also worthy causes. Do u believe in killing more than 100,000 innocent civilians is worthy causes in Iraq.
  • JerseySol
    That seems like a realistic idea the peninsula belongs to the korean people not the Kim dynasty of the North or to chinese imperialism The United States will be there when the time comes and so will I to support friends I have never met in a cause worth fighting.
  • realist303
    The US Department of Defense with it's $700 Billion dollar budget and privatized military has to have a war at all times. Luck would have it we have many options to keep them growing. Or perhaps it's not luck at all?
  • Mcoy
    Yeah right, blame the DOD.
  • CDNPatriot1
    In the event of a war we need to stop comparing this to Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan unlike those "losses" which were not military failures but political failures in which a great number of people did not want America as liberators, I Gather that most South Koreans do not want to starve and be opp... more
  • tigresse
    The two Koreas NEVER signed a peae treaty...they are still, tehcnically speaking, at war. And sooner, or later, this fact will come to haunt the Korean Peninsula. Many experts said the Vietnam War was the defining war in Asia regarding world alliances but somehow I think the Korean War - also known ... more
  • aqui2lini
    The number of soldiers on the ground is not very important. The main factors are that N. Korea has the nuke and China would not permit an US attack.
  • sadergator11 offense. But you are very ignorant JUST in the United States ARMY (not speaking for the Marines, Airforce, Navy, National Gaurd), the US has upwards of 500,000 active duty, and 500,000 reserves. Thats 1 Million troops in one branch of our armed forces. And partaking in the naval ROTC progam, I ... more
  • dylanwebster
    Hmmmm, South Korea has over 600,000 men at arms.. The north has 950,000 at arms. Most of their equipment is old soviet union tanks and aircraft. Its old and rusty. Unlike America and South Korea. If war broke out The US would flood troops in.. The north cannot win this war.
  • aqui2lini
    You are right, the war will be a catastrophe. Americans can age wars only against bad armed countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. Their superpower role is shrinking.
  • Guest
    uhh, The south korean army alone has over 650,000 active duty soldiers. so not sure what you are talking about.
  • sleddog116
    Isn't it funny how the DPRK has been test-launching missiles into the Sea of Japan (as a clear threat to the Japanese) for years, yet they have the right to push the ROK around for carrying out routine exercises?
  • Levend
    China only is like that because it gets its way.
  • hyunkim85
    As a American Korean who lived in korea for more than half of my life, this is very distrubing new. The skirmishes the North Korean is doing is becoming greater and larger scale. Few years ago, they sunk a submarine, killing 49 Korean Navy and now they are bombarding an island off the West coast. Th... more
  • Guest
    You mean you were born a Korean American, but later moved to korea with your parents who are korean? Lol i hope youre not like a white guy trying to pretend to be korean like that mad tv episode.
  • BajaJohn
    Being a war veteran and a man who prefers peace, at what point does South Korea decide that its material wealth does not equal saving face in front of the whole world? Repeated military slaps on the face do not bode well for the victim's agressor or the victim. Even a weak person will strike back at... more
  • hyunkim85
    striking back? It's not that simple Baja John. If you strike back at them, then we got another korean war and millions of people will die, instead of 2 marines. The North Korean wants war, and they've been waiting for it for years. They are ready for war as they've always been. They train their citi... more
  • CAPTCAPS1948
    zargos, You are a man who knows his Mushrooms. Lets hope they do'nt find that idiot. Charles Bowen Solomon Stone
  • zargos
    One time it was 1 game of chess Russia & the Usa . Now its a 5 level chess soon 7 etc . But it only takes 1 Idiot to start the mushroom farm . wars are 1 thing nucear wars are unknown
  • Realist1981
    Wow Breed thanks for stunning and in depth analysis. Cave dwellers with old AK 47's? hahahaha might want to look in the mirror if you're looking for ignorance. I was in the Marines and did 2 tours to Iraq. You obviously have no understanding of the religious, political or cultural motives behind... more
  • Guest
    Oh, and because the United States government and military understand "the religious, political or cultural motives behind this conflict", they give their "expert military advice" AND even offer their expert military services. C'mon! I don't expect you to agree, nor do I want you to. But, I simply wo... more
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It's one of the world's most secretive nations -- why does N. Korea have so little contact?
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