It is not as if the latest incident on the maritime border between the two Koreas comes completely out of the blue. Only last March, the Cheonan, a South Korean frigate, was sunk by a suspected North Korean torpedo. 46 sailors perished in the attack, something Pyongyang still vehemently denies having anything to do with.
Technically, the two countries have remained in a state of war ever since they signed an armistice more than half a century ago. The 1953 treaty brought an end to the Korean war and resulted in the division of the peninsula between communist North and the South. Also known as the 39th Parallel, the demilitarised zone remains heavily fortified on both sides.
Currently the North is estimated to have around 800 ballistic missiles at its disposal and more than a thousand others of various ranges. In contrast, the South has recently deployed cruise missiles with a range of 1500km.
In addition, the North is believed to have around 50 kilos of plutonium – enough, experts say, to produce between six or eight atomic bombs. The South, meanwhile, has no atomic arsenal, but has been promised protection under Washington’s nuclear umbrella.
This latest incident follows Pyongyang’s recent disclosure of a massive uranium enrichment facility. The North has insisted the plant is purely for electricity generation. However, with 2000 centrifuges, the military potential has been described as ‘serious’ by a top US scientist who was given access to the site, and only complicates the South and West’s dealings with the reclusive state.
Added to all this are the stalled six-party nuclear disarmament for aid talks. Most experts agree the only viable solution is diplomatic engagement with the North. The US, Japan and South Korea are standing firm on their demand for Pyongyang’s denuclearisation. Russia and China are less adamant, arguing the talks themselves are more important.
Beijing has described the North’s latest shelling as ‘very undesirable’, but others say the close relationship with China allows the North’s Communist leadership to survive. Increasingly isolated, the exact intentions of leader Kim Jong il are never easy to work out. However, some analysts believe the latest show of power is intended to reinforce the regime’s military prowess, enabling a smooth succession to his son Kim Jong Un.