The arrival this weekend of a US aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea represents an act of political solidarity with South Korea by Washington, but no one expects North Korea to back down, and some believe that Kim Jong-il, the reclusive state’s leader, might enjoy the additional attention.
Pyongyang used familiar rhetoric on Friday to warn that joint US-South Korea military exercises, beginning on Sunday, will push the region further towards conflict.
The four days of manoeuvres take place as North Korea watchers debate Pyongyang’s motivation for shelling the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Tuesday, killing four people and destroying dozens of houses.
In the most extreme interpretation, Mr Kim, who is also accused of torpedoing a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March, will try to provoke the South with ever more chilling strikes until he triggers a war.
The more optimistic interpretation favoured by South Korean officials and international banks is that Mr Kim will never set his country on a trajectory to such probable self-destruction.
Brian Myers, an expert on North Korean ideology at Dongseo university, rejects this view. He says the country can define itself only through its ideology of “military first”. Realising that trying to improve the economy is futile, the Kim dynasty has no choice but to try to vindicate its existence with military victories.
“North Korea cannot shift its focus from military to economic affairs without be- coming a fourth-rate South Korea,” he says. Encouraged by the South’s unwillingness to retaliate, the North will push the boundaries again. “They are going to cross a point sooner or later where South Korea or the US has to respond.”
Michael Breen, a biographer of Mr Kim, says the North may be focusing on the disputed maritime border between the countries – the Northern Limit Line – in the Yellow Sea. The area was the scene of naval battles in 1999, 2002 and 2009. The sinking of the Cheonan and this week’s attack took place close to the NLL, which Mr Breen sees as evidence that the raids reflect anger over the maritime border in particular.
In this analysis, sending an aircraft carrier for joint manoeuvres could be a dangerous move. North Korea says it attacked the island because it felt threatened by a military exercise.
“If the US are prepared to strike back with even more force, if attacked, then fine; but if they think they can have an impact by flexing their muscles, that could be risky,” Mr Breen says.
China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, said after meeting Pyongyang’s ambassador and talking by phone to his US and South Korean counterparts, that Beijing was “deeply worried” by North Korea’s attack. “The top priority now is to keep the situation under control and to ensure such events do not happen again,” the ministry said.
South Korean security officials say it is significant that the attack followed the unveiling of an undisclosed uranium enrichment facility. They say both events were aimed at building political capital for Kim Jong-eun, the third son of Kim Jong-il, as he is prepared for succession.
Many South Korean and US officials reject suggestions that North Korea’s ideology is suicidal. “North Korea is a rational actor,” says one security official. The South Korean government insists Pyongyang makes displays of force to scare Washington and Seoul into resuming negotiations, from which it can win political concessions and aid.
Such a tactic would seem pointless because the US and South Korea have ruled out concessions to the destitute North until it dismantles its nuclear programme.
As after the sinking of the Cheonan, some analysts have written that the shelling could have been the work of a maverick or panicked commander. Several arguments counter that theory. Live-firing and naval exercises are common on the NLL, so there were no extra grounds to panic on Tuesday. More tellingly, Mr Kim visited the region shortly before the attack.
South Korean officials also argue the scale of the bombardment, using 200 shells, meant it must have been planned in Pyongyang.
● Lee Myung-bak, South Korea’s president, has named the former joint chiefs of staff chairman, Kim Kwan-jin, as defence minister. He replaces Kim Tae-young, who quit after criticism of the military’s response to the Yeonpyeong attack.
Get alerts on North Korea when a new story is published