Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tensions rise in S Korea after attack

Tensions remain high a day after North Korea struck the South Korean island of Daeyeonpyeong, one of several islands collectively referred to as Yeonpyeong Island. Two military personnel were killed along with 2 civilians and at least 13 others were injured when North Korea launched a barrage of missiles onto the island. South Korean forces responded with return fire and F-16 fighter jets were scrambled, though the hostilities calmed after an hour. However the situation remains volatile with both sides accusing the other of firing the first shot and each vowing to defend their sovereign territory.

The island is home to more than 1,300 civilians but also houses a military base. It was this base that was apparently targeted by the North soon after South Korean forces had staged an artillery exercise in the area. North Korea claims that missiles had been fired towards its territory, something strongly contested by the South. Shelling of Yeonpyeong Island began at approximately 14:34 local time. The South Korean military base as well as several civilian buildings were struck by the missiles and the South Korean military responded with artillery fire from K-9 155mm self-propelled howitzers against two North Korean coastal artillery bases. It is unclear what damage was sustained by North Korea, but power was knocked out across Yeonpyeong Island and several fires broke out. South Korean Air Force F-16 fighter jets were scrambled, but it did not engage enemy targets. North Korea is said to have fired more than 100 shells, some reports citing a number as high as 200. South Korea said it fired 80 shells in response.

Media coverage

As news broke of the attack media organisation broadcast pictures relayed via Yonhap TV News in South Korea. Images showed plumes of smoke coming from the island and later footage from closed circuit TV cameras and mobile phones which had capture missiles landing and of the K-9 howitszers being fired in response. But despite the severity of the situation there was not the saturation coverage often seen during such a major breaking news story. Russia Today and China's CCTV News channel barely touched on the story, with CCTV only reporting event late into the day. Al Jazeera provided the longest in depth coverage, with Euronews and CNN following closely behind. The events were the top story on both the the BBC and Sky News though at noon when the date for the royal wedding was announced they both dropped the story of the attack in favour of the royal couple.

Wednesday's papers varied in what they covered on their front pages. The Independent ran with the front page headline "War Clouds Over Korea" while the Financial Times spoke of the fears over any escalation. A picture of the bombing dominated the Guardian though the main story focused on The Archbishop of Canterbury's worries over the future of the Anglican Church. The Times also ran with a large picture but its front page was also dominated by school examination results and the royal wedding. The daily Telegraphy spoke of a £5 million royal wedding and an exam shake-up as well as a health story about aspirin. All the tabloids adorned their front pages with the royal wedding plans, though the Sun did also have a mention of the strike on South Korea along the side.

World reaction

There was strong condemnation from many countries around the world. US President Barack Obama said he was "outraged". As the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, carrying 75 fighter and a crew of over 6,000 servicemen, headed towards the Korean Peninsula, Obama reiterated his commitment to stand by the Republic of Korea. "We strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea," he said. 

On the streets of Seoul there were protests calling for a strong response to North Korea's hostilities. Hundreds of demonstrators gather to burn pictures of Jim Jong-Il and his successor Kim Jong-Un as well as the North Korean Flag. Meanwhile on the streets of North Korean capital of Pyongyang residents reiterated the party line of the ruling government. "The South Korean puppets should realise that any provocation will be responded to with merciless fire," one man told a local television news reporter. 

Similar voices came from North Korean media. "The puppet group dared make an uproar over 'a provocation' from someone and cry out for 'punishment' like a thief crying 'Stop the thief!'" the North's KCNA news agency said. "The Lee Myung-bak group's treacherous and anti-reunification acts are intolerable as it vitiated the atmosphere for improving the inter-Korean relations overnight and drove the situation to the brink of war, challenging the desire of all the Koreans," KCNA said.

Meanwhile the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said it was consulting the United States and other allies Wednesday, following the North's shelling. "We have come to the judgment that what happened on Yeonpyeong Island was a definite military provocation against the Republic of Korea," the Lee administration said. "The fact that they have indiscriminately fired upon a defenseless civilian zone was a brutally inhumane action, an illegal and intentional action against the UN constitution and the armistice between the North and South Korea."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the attack "one of the gravest incidents" since the Korean War ended in 1953. And top US general in South Korea, General Walter Sharp, called on North Korea to stop what he called "unprovoked attacks" and to abide by an armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. "These actions are threatening the peace and stability of the entire region," he said. 

China has been reserved in its response. Hong Lei, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "We have noticed related reports and are concerned about the issue. The real situation needs to be confirmed." But he also called for calm. "We hope related parties to do things conductive [sic] to peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula," Hong said.

While the situation is extremely volatile, many residents in Seoul were not as concerneed as might be expected. "I was talking with a friend this morning and we wondered why we weren't more concerned," a Seoul restaurant owner, Pyun Sung-ja, said on Wednesday. "I guess it's because the area of the shelling is so far from here. It feels like it happened in another country."

Yeonpyeong Island is more than 100 km to the north-west of the capital Seoul. and is much closer to the border of North Korea. However, Seoul is also well in missile range from the North standing less than  36 km from the nearest border with its neighbour. Should the capital be targeted, there would be far greater casualties. There would likely be a far greater military response too from South Korea and its allies. With the North believed to possess nuclear weapons and having strong ties to China, the political and military fallout is too dreadful for many to contemplate [Wikipedia / CNN / BBC / Sky News / Al JazeeraNYT].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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