South Korean Island Hit By North Korea Artillery

North Korea's military fired dozens of artillery rounds across the disputed border, prompting South Korea to return fire and scramble jets. Brian Myers, an associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University in South Korea, talks to Steve Inskeep about the clash.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's the situation as best we understand it in Korea. Take a map of the peninsula and you will see how it's divided north and south. Near that dividing line, along the coast, there's a South Korean island and North Korea has been firing artillery shells onto that island. Some people have been killed, buildings are on fire, and people have been evacuated.

We're going to talk about all this with Brian Myers, who is an associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.

Welcome back to the program, sir.

Professor BRIAN MYERS (Dongseo University): Thank you.

INSKEEP: How far does this go beyond the usual cross-border tensions between the Koreas?

Prof. MYERS: It goes much, much further than anything we've seen. We've seen a couple naval scrimmages in the region since 1999, we had another one in 2002, another one last year, and of course we had the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel in March this year. But this is the first time since the Korean War that we've had an attack on civilian territory with artillery shells, so this is really, I would say, the worst act of aggression against South Korea that we've seen since the end of the Korean War.

INSKEEP: What was happening in the days before this incident?

Prof. MYERS: Well, in the days before this incident, most of the world was focusing on North Korea's uranium facilities and the North Koreans were complaining about South Korea's so-called Hokog(ph) military exercises, and North Korea was threatening to retaliate if those exercises went ahead as planned. But that is pretty much par for the course here. The North Koreans always complain about South Korean military exercises.

INSKEEP: So then it went to this new level of the North Koreans apparently opening fire, and we're watching TV images, as I'm sure you are, of towers of smoke rising above this island. Is there any sense of why the North Koreans would strike now?

Prof. MYERS: Well, you know, the North Korean regime has been making threatening noises towards this administration, this conservative administration of President Lee Myung-bak ever since he took office in 2008, and you know, we saw a rise in tension last year. But things were actually looking pretty good here for the past few weeks. There were some reunions between families who had been separated during the Korean War. There were talks of moving ahead with the Kaesong Industrial Zone. So people really were expecting the situation to get a little bit better, and instead of that we see, you know, the worst thing that we've seen here in well over 50 years.

INSKEEP: Well, now, how is South Korea responding then to this North Korean attack?

Prof. MYERS: Well, it's interesting. If I can compare it to the American response to 9/11, when everybody was clustered around their TV sets, when all of life came to a halt, it's actually quite different from that. I mean not all the TV stations have discontinued their normal programming. I'm on the university campus right now. I just heard some students laughing outside. It's a very different kind of thing here. People, I think, are habituated to a certain amount of tension and perhaps they see this only as an incremental increase, but I think that's going to change as soon as we get some details out about how many civilians lost their lives on this island. So far it was two sailors. Now, 46 sailors were killed last March, so in military terms it doesn't look quite as bad. But if we find out that, as is feared, civilians lost their lives on that island, then I think the public opinion could change here very quickly.

INSKEEP: Is there any concern about firing or possible, possible military action across the demilitarized zone on basically the mainland of the peninsula, which would perhaps be even more serious step?

Prof. MYERS: Yeah. Well, I'm sure that is on the president's mind. President Lee Myung-bak issued kind of, in a sense, schizophrenic statements, and then on the one hand he promised a resolute response. On the other hand he is said to have instructed the military to make sure that this does not expand into an all-out war. That is, of course, always the concern here. In the United States we tend to be more concerned about North Korea's nuclear capability, but North Korea has more than enough in terms of conventional missiles with which to completely flatten Seoul. So that is, of course, a concern. People want to make sure that this does not escalate beyond that island - beyond that part of the world.

INSKEEP: Mr. Myers, thanks very much.

Prof. MYERS: Sure. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Brian Myers is at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.

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