Analysts Puzzle Over Pyongyang's Motives For Shelling

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Analysts are trying to figure what could have motivated North Korea to shell a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea on Tuesday during military exercises by the South. Among the theories: the attack was designed to bolster the credentials of North Korea's young heir apparent, Kim Jong-un; North Korea and China want to make the Yellow Sea disputed waters to discourage the U.S. military presence there.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block.

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

An American aircraft carrier, the George Washington, is on its way to South Korean waters. It'll take part in military exercises with South Korea starting on Sunday. That's one part of the Obama administration's response to North Korea after it shelled a South Korean island yesterday. Four people were killed.

BLOCK: In Washington today, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, asked China to use its influence over North Korea to ease tensions. Mullen said the Pentagon believes the attack was linked to leadership succession in North Korea.

But, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, analysts in South Korea are still puzzling over motives.

LOUISA LIM: As the George Washington steams towards South Korean waters, the discovery that two civilians had been killed in the North Korean attacks further ratcheted up the tension. Government officials were on the defensive in parliament after lawmakers criticized their response, saying retaliation should've been faster and stronger.

President Lee Myung-bak has ordered the government to consider revising the rules of engagement. But, still, there were questions about what precipitated the North Korean attack. As Choi Jin-wook, from Korea Institute for National Unification points out...

Mr. CHOI JIN-WOOK (Korea Institute for National Unification): North Korea is now behaving very irrationally. I think North Korea can't get aid. North Korea can't get security guarantee out of this. There's nothing they can get out of this provocation.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: This attack comes less than two months after North Korea unveiled its heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un, to the world in a massive military parade. Many analysts believe the attack could be related to the power transition from father to son. It could bolster the younger Kim's military credentials, as well as creating a focal rallying point at a time of possible internal instability.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: The South Korean, who are aggravating the situation of the Korean...

LIM: Today North Korea blames the South for pushing the peninsula to the brink of war. It said it had responded in self-defense after the South fired shells into its waters near a disputed maritime border. Widening that maritime dispute could also explain North Korea's behavior, according to the president of the Sejong Institute, Song Dae-Sung.

Mr. SONG DAE-SUNG (President, Sejong Institute): (Through translator) The North Koreans want to make the Yellow Sea a disputed area. They don't want South Korean military drills there with or without the U.S. It's a very sensitive issue to China as well. And maybe China is implicitly encouraging them.

LIM: Today, China issued its first official statement, which is notable for its failure to condemn or even criticize North Korea. A foreign ministry spokesman instead urged both Koreas to show common restraint and to engage in talks. Si Jin(ph) from Fudan University in Shanghai, says in dealing with its old ally, Beijing is driven by its own strategic imperative.

Professor SI JIN (Fudan University): (Through translator) China does not to see North Korea descend into chaos and disorder during the power transition. China remains wary of criticism toward North Korea, dealing with international and other incidents.

LIM: Pyongyang could also be trying to influence South Korean domestic politics, according to expert Choi Jin-wook. He points out that the North have not benefited from the hawkish stance of South Korea's conservative leader, Lee Myung-bak. Choi believes Pyongyang could already be looking ahead.

President LEE MYUNG-BAK (South Korea): They are thinking about the next government. They are aiming at try to panicking South Korean people and now South Korean people are very angry at it. But if they keep doing this, South Korean people might think about, we are tired of this tension. We want peace and why don't we give them some aid, and so, let them be quiet. So, in that sense they might repeat these provocations.

(Soundbite of chanting)

(Soundbite of news report)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking Korean)

LIM: Tonight's news reports show a protest by conservative civil organizations. Chanting, we condemn, they're calling for stronger South Korean action against North Korea. In this context, South Korean restraint looks like weakness, strengthening Pyongyang's hand. But retaliation from the South would only bolster Pyongyang's hardliners, leaving South Korea with no good options.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.

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