North Korean forces fired on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong yesterday, killing two Republic of Korea marines and injuring 17, with an additional three civilians wounded and two missing. The attack, the first on South Korean soil for decades and the first against civilians, triggered an immediate response in kind from South Korea, which returned fire against North Korean coastal artillery. President Lee Myung-bak has called it an “undeniable provocation” and vowed to retaliate if Pyongyang attacks again.
Yeonpyeong island, located near the border with North Korea, is home to approximately 1,600 civilians and a garrison of 1,000 ROK marines. Most of the population is concentrated in a small town the southern side of the island. In addition to the garrison, the island is ringed with tank traps and trenches. Nineteen underground bunkers have been built to accommodate local civilians, who participate in monthly civil defense drills.
According to Voice of America, there was an initial salvo of 15 artillery rounds, and the main barrage began 40 minutes later, with about 100 North Korean artillery rounds fired in all. South Korean K-9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers responded, firing 80 155-millimeter shells in response. South Korea also scrambled KF-16 and later F-15K fighters to patrol over the island. Firing from North Korea ended 11 minutes after the South Korean military contacted the North Korean military and requested a cease fire. Currently South Korean forces are at maximum alert, and President Lee has reportedly directed the military to strike North Korean missile bases near Yeonpyeong island in the event of future attacks. The U.S. and South Korean governments have also vowed to coordinate any military response.
For its part North Korea insists that South Korea started the incident by conducting military drills on the island it later attacked. South Korea responded by saying that firing involved in the Hoguk drills was “routine” and was aimed at a target 20-30 kilometers to the southwest, away from North Korea. North Korea warned that if South Korean forces infringe on its territory by even “.001 millimeter” it would take “merciless military counter-actions.” How it decided on this precise distance is unclear and unlikely ever to be known.
According to reports on Twitter, within minutes of the attack Scan Eagle UAVs were launched from nearby American submarines to provide real-time intelligence on the situation. As Galrahn at Information Dissemination noted, there are considerable American naval forces operating in the Pacific and Indian oceans, including two Amphibious Ready Groups in the Western Pacific, two Carrier Strike Groups off the West Coast of the United States, and two CSGs supporting Operation Enduring Freedom from the Indian Ocean.
There has been widespread speculation as to why North Korea instigated the attack. One theory is that this was executed in order to be attributed to Kim Jong Il’s heir designate, Kim Jong Un, who has no military experience. Robert Farley, at the blog Lawyers, Guns & Money, guesses, “North Korea is taking behavioral cues from the increasingly tense security relationship between China on the one side and the U.S. and Japan on the other side. The North Koreans may believe that these tensions open up a wider space for action because they reduce the chances of collaboration between China and the U.S. ” Yet another theory is that Kim Jong Il has died, and North Korea is lashing out to pre-empt its enemies striking it during a time of perceived weakness.