South Korean Gen. Han Min-koo looks at houses destroyed by North Korea's Nov. 23 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Two weeks after the attack, the rivals are still trading threats, while tensions are also rising between South Korea's ally, the U.S., and China, an ally of North Korea.
After two weeks of prodding by the U.S., China has sent a top envoy to North Korea to help defuse the growing crisis on the Korean peninsula. Washington has been watching with growing alarm as North Korea has taken a series of provocative actions, and has been pushing Beijing to try to rein in Pyongyang.
North Korea has been blamed for the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 sailors. Last month, Pyongyang announced it had a uranium enrichment program. And, just before Thanksgiving, North Korea launched an artillery barrage on a South Korean island, killing four people, including two civilians.
David Schambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, says the incidents have heightened tension on the Korean peninsula and eroded relations between the U.S. and North Korea's traditional ally, China.
"It's an extremely serious situation and in the context of U.S.-China relations only adds further friction and tensions to an already stressful relationship," Schambaugh says.
After each incident, Washington has pressed China to intervene, but with little success. Schambaugh says there has been growing mistrust between Beijing and Washington for more than a year over a series of issues, such as human rights and currency manipulation, and the United States' good relations with Taiwan.
South Korean veterans burn a banner showing photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (center), his late father, Kim Il Sung (left), and his youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, during a rally Tuesday in Seoul denouncing North Korea's bombardment of Yeonpyeong.
Schambaugh says when the U.S. asks Beijing to restrain North Korea, "the Chinese sit on their hands and stick their head in the sand and do nothing." That, Schambaugh says, is irritating, to put it mildly.
U.S., China Clash Over How To Handle Crisis
Meanwhile, the situation on the Korean peninsula has grown more serious after last month's attack. After the incident, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea and staged naval exercises in the region. South Korea has vowed to retaliate the next time it is attacked from the North.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have created a united front. And as the days wear on, Beijing and Washington are exchanging barbed statements about how to handle North Korea.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says both sides want to defuse the Korean crisis; they just go about it in different ways. "The United States and South Korea believe that you have to deter North Korea, to demonstrate to North Korea that we are prepared to take very tough actions, military actions," he says. "To Beijing, the way to calm things down is to engage in talks, not challenge North Korea, try to just tamp it down."
Michael Green, an Asia adviser in George W. Bush's White House, says China has real fears about North Korea collapsing.
Now a senior Asia adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Green says Beijing has a legitimate worry about instability leading to a massive influx of refugees into China and destabilizing its own domestic situation.
"They also, I think, at a strategic level, have no stomach for ... unification under the South, which would put a democratic, unified nation of 75 million, aligned with the United States, right on their border," he says.
Chances Of Escalation Very Real
China has been encouraging the resumption of six-party talks involving North Korea and regional powers. But U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg says Washington sees that as simply a reward for bad behavior.
"What we've seen in the past [is] that talks for the sake of talks do not produce the kind of results that we need to see to move the Korean peninsula in a more stable and peaceful direction," he says.
Steinberg will lead an American delegation to China next week to talk with officials there about North Korea. A top Chinese envoy and North Korea's ailing leader, Kim Jong Il, met Wednesday to discuss the situation on the Korean peninsula. The talks were described as candid and in-depth.
The Brookings Institution's Lieberthal says there is no doubt that Beijing has been telling Pyongyang to stop engaging in provocations. But Lieberthal says that's no guarantee North Korea will listen.
"Pyongyang has a habit of not listening to advice if they feel pressured by China or in the past by the United States," he says. "As often as not, North Korea's response to pressure is to do the opposite of what you're asking and to escalate."
Lieberthal says the chances of escalation on the Korean peninsula are very real, in part, because Kim Jong Il is trying to arrange for his youngest son to succeed him. The younger Kim will have to show he is tough enough to take over the reins from his father.