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Clash in the Yellow Sea: What's next for North and South Korea?

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The recent clash in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is among the worst in the last fifty years.

The recent clash in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is among the worst in the last fifty years. The Korean People's Army (KPA) fired dozens of artillery shells at the South Korean Island of Yeonpyeong. Two South Korean soldiers were killed in the exchange and another 15 were injured, as were three civilians. Dozens of houses caught fire. Judging by available information, the first shots were fired from positions near the town of Haeju, some 20-40 km away.

South Korea responded by firing 80 shells at North Korean territory. Both sides accuse each other of initiating the unprovoked attack.

Facts on the ground

Any discussion of the causes of this recent clash must deal with the host of factors shaping the situation on the Korean peninsula.

De jure South and North Korea are still at war. In 1953, they signed a truce but not a formal peace treaty.

The two Koreas are divided by a demilitarized zone where armed conflict is not uncommon on the ground, at sea and in the air. In March, the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, sank following an explosion not far from this area, killing 46 people. The exact cause of the wreck has not yet been established, but there are suspicions that a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine sank the vessel.

It is not clear, either, what motivated the recent North Korean attack. It was likely provoked by South Korean military exercises near North Korea's coast, which the North saw as an attack. The Yonhap News Agency quoted a representative of the South Korean presidential administration as saying: "Our army was conducting military exercises, and North Korea sent us a message protesting the exercises and inquiring whether it was an attack."

Perhaps a North Korean artillery commander simply lost his cool.

But this explanation is not supported by the facts. Too many shells were fired - about 200, according to expert estimates - for this to have been an accident.

Another version claims that this latest attack is a part of the intricate political game taking place in the ranks of the North Korean leadership to decide on Kim Jong Il's successor and the country's strategy for the near future.

Who shot first?

North Korea has massed far-range artillery systems near the demilitarized zone in the event of an outbreak in hostilities. The South Korean island was mostly likely shelled by 170mm Koksan self-propelled guns (the 1978 or 1989 model). Depending on the shell, the maximum range of these guns is anywhere between 40 and 60 km. This is the KPA's most modern long-range gun, and almost all of these guns are deployed near the demilitarized zone.

South Korea most likely returned fire with self-propelled 155mm caliber K9 guns, with a maximum range of 55 km. Owing to their range, rapid firing speed and precision, these guns are good for counter-battery combat. However, the results of the South Korean counterattack are so far unknown and will likely remain so.

Is escalation likely?

The answer to this question depends on many external factors, primarily the response of the United States, South Korea's main ally.

North Korea is unlikely to escalate tensions for fear of a war that North Korea would surely lose, owing to the enemy's overwhelming superiority and its own lack of foreign support. While it has a large army and nuclear weapons, North Korea is still far behind its potential enemies in terms of modern military hardware. The gap in some weapon categories is as large as one to three generations, and North Korea will never match its rivals in the systems of communications, detection, target indication and navigation.

No country, not even China, supplies North Korea with arms. Its own industry has achieved some success in the production of ballistic missiles but is unable to equip its army with the necessary amount of modern weapons.

Combat training for its armed forces also leaves much to be desired. North Korea cannot meet the army's fuel needs; as a result, the army's mobile and air units are woefully underprepared, in the opinion of experts.

However, Seoul is also unlikely to escalate tensions. U.S. support more or less ensures that it would win any war against the North, but the victory would be far too costly. And there is always the risk that North Korea could use nuclear weapons.

An escalation in the conflict between the two Koreas would be extremely detrimental to the United States, which cannot afford another war, all the less so without any tangible material advantages. There is absolutely no room for a war with North Korea in the current administration's foreign policy.

If there are no more armed clashes in the near future, this incident likely won't go beyond a period of heightened tension and formidable rhetoric on both sides.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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