BEIJING — South Korea’s government remained on emergency alert Monday night for possible retaliation by Pyongyang after the South staged more than an hour of live artillery exercises on an island that North Korea shelled last month.
The approximately 90 minutes of South Korean artillery fire from Yeonpyeong Island, just some seven miles off North Korea’s coastline, continued the rise of tensions on the Korean Peninsula that are widely seen as being at their most dangerous levels in decades.
While North Korea released an official statement on Monday evening saying it would not respond, Pyongyang’s history of erratic and contradictory behavior made it impossible to evaluate how long that position would last. As recently as Saturday, North Korea had promised to bring “decisive and merciless punishment” should the South hold the drills.
The brinksmanship came the same day as reports saying that the North Korean government is now willing to allow the return of United Nations nuclear inspectors and to sell some 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to the South.
Never miss a local story.
The announcement was carried by CNN, which had journalists traveling with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on a State Department-sanctioned trip to Pyongyang.
The reported offers received a cool reception in Seoul and did not halt the exercise, which sent artillery shells crashing into Yellow Sea waters that both Koreas claim.
Despite the apparent success of Richardson’s diplomatic efforts, it remained unclear on Monday how the current crisis could be defused.
North Korea’s main ally, China, has refused so far to publicly pressure Pyongyang to curtail its behavior.
Last minute negotiations at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council, for example, fell apart on Sunday largely because Beijing blocked efforts to admonish Pyongyang for the North’s Nov. 23 Yeonpyeong shelling that killed two civilians and two South Korean marines.
The United States and its two principle partners in the region, South Korea and Japan, have meanwhile banded closer together in the face of both North Korea’s actions and worries about the rising power of Beijing.
The North’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island and the torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March, which killed 46, have significantly dampened political will in Seoul for diplomacy.
Many observers in South Korea speculate that the incidents this year are fueled by a combination of factors inside North Korea that are difficult to address.
On one hand is the North’s desire to force the international community to the negotiating table, which would presumably involve more aid to the impoverished country. On the other are efforts by the regime of Kim Jong Il to burnish the military credentials of his heir apparent, who is in his late-20s and feared to be not up to the task of holding the nation together should his father die soon.
Analysts and officials in Seoul were wary on Monday of the North’s talk of nuclear inspections, which they said appeared to be an attempt to get the United States, South Korea and Japan to rejoin negotiations known as the six-party talks.
Past six-party efforts, which also include China and Russia, are judged by South Korea as having only provided the North cover to continue developing its nuclear weapons programs. Those concerns were furthered last month when North Korea unveiled a sophisticated uranium enrichment facility.
“Even if (North Korea) were to accept the IAEA inspectors, we will have to make an overall assessment based on how much access is given to the inspectors and what the North's intentions were,” a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun told reporters on Monday, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Without knowing whether the North is serious about allowing unfettered inspections, the IAEA conversation “may be quite meaningless,” Lee Dong-bok, a Seoul analyst and former South Korean intelligence official, said in a phone interview.
Should inspectors be allowed into the North, and taken to nuclear sites, the United States, South Korea and Japan would still likely want to pour over the resulting reports before committing to six-party meetings, said Hideshi Takesada, executive director for research and international affairs at a Japanese defense ministry institute.
For now, the artillery display on Monday underscored the South’s resolve to not tolerate any more aggression from Pyongyang, said Lee, the analyst.
“By undertaking these exercises this afternoon we have told the North Koreans it’s not going to be like it has,” Lee said. “They are going to pay dearly if they decide to come back with another round of military provocations.”
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Tom on Twitter
Follow China developments at McClatchy's China Rises blog