North Korea’s artillery bombardment of a South Korean island on Tuesday follows what analysts call a pattern of aggressive actions by the secretive government when it feels under stress or threatened.
The attack is the latest in a series of provocations aimed at both South Korea and its protector, the United States, that has seemed to coincide with recent moves by the ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, to position his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir apparent.
While the North has sought to send strong, militaristic messages to the United States and its allies in the past, the new provocations have been more forceful and lethal than in recent decades. Analysts say the government may be trying to ensure that the Kim family dynasty continues for a third generation by winning the loyalty of the powerful military with shows of force.
The escalation may also reflect the increasing insecurity or even desperation of the isolated North, which often has trouble feeding its own population, much less keeping up with the rising technological and military capabilities of the far wealthier South.
“The North reacts with sea clashes whenever it feels slighted or threatened,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “The North wants to send a message to the South that it will never yield.”
Last weekend, an American nuclear scientist said that the North had shown him a new facility for enriching uranium, in what appeared to be an intentional revelation that it was developing new means to expand its small nuclear arsenal.
By far the biggest incident came in March, when a sudden explosion sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors. South Korean and international investigators said the blast was caused by a North Korean torpedo, something the North has vehemently denied. If the sinking was the work of the North, it would be the most lethal military attack since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Analysts admit that trying to make sense of these seemingly random and often violent acts is a bit like reading tea leaves. However, they tend to offer three lines of analysis in explaining them.
The first is that the North is raising tensions on the peninsula in order to get Washington’s attention. In particular, North Korea appears keen to hold bilateral talks with the United States, something both the Bush and Obama administrations have been wary of doing. The Bush administration preferred to hold collective discussions with North Korea as part of the so-called six party talks that also involve China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. The Obama administration has not held direct talks with the North.
The lack of negotiations has frustrated one of the North’s main goals in developing a nuclear program: getting the outside world to pay the North to dismantle it. When talks lag or the North does not get the result it is seeking, it often seeks to remind neighbors of its military prowess — by testing a nuclear device or a new missile, for example.
The recent provocations could be a show aimed at the broader domestic population, to once again rally them behind the government by creating an air of crisis. Some experts have also speculated that the recent acts were ordered by the younger Kim to establish his leadership credentials with the military, arguably the most powerful institution in North Korea.
One of the North’s ultimate goals may be ensuring the Kim dynasty’s survival by negotiating with the United States, most likely for a peace treaty to conclude the Korean war, which never formally ended. North Korea could conceivably offer its nuclear program as a bargaining chip in exchange for security guarantees that would include a pledge never to attack the North.
The last time North Korea engaged in acts this destructive was in the 1980s, when it blew up a South Korean airliner and also detonated a bomb in Myanmar in a botched attempt to assassinate the visiting South Korean president. Both attacks were said to be ordered by Kim Jong-il, who was then the heir to his father and the government’s founder, Kim Il-song.
No matter what the motivations, the troubled North is viewed as fiercely independent, and its aggressiveness may well be an effort to signal a resolve to show its staying power against the growing wealth and technological strength of the South.
This would not be the first time the North has sent such warnings, which often take the form of military clashes in disputed waters around Yeonpyeong island, the target of Tuesday’s artillery attack. North and South Korean warships have fought in these waters three times since 1999. The most recent clash came last November, when an exchange of fire damaged patrol vessels of both nations.
Su Hyun-lee contributed reporting.
This article, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.