North Korea bombarded Yeonpyeong Island — a small South Korean island near the two Koreas’ disputed sea border — on Nov. 23 with some 200 artillery shells, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians and injuring more than a dozen residents. The news was the latest in a series of frightening developments about the isolated communist North Korean regime.
Just days before the attack, nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, announced that he had been allowed to tour a new, sophisticated uranium enrichment facility in North Korea. In March, North Korea torpedoed and sank a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.
A day after the bombardment, the United States announced that the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington and its strike group would join South Korean forces in a naval exercise west of the Korean peninsula. According to the Pentagon, the exercise was defensive in nature and had been planned well in advance of the North Korean attacks.
But while the American Navy might be on display in the waters off North Korea, its lack of political power was revealed in the political steps that were taken after the bombardment. As Reuters reported, “State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States was seeking a unified diplomatic front with North Korea’s neighbors including China, Pyongyang’s sole remaining major backer which has in the past resisted international efforts to get tough with its isolated ally.”
According to Belmont Club blogger Richard Fernandez, the administration’s statement was clear. “The message is that if you want something done in the region, talk to China. Washington’s utility has been reduced to a spokesman of the delegation to China. But the real gears turn in the Middle Kingdom. Therefore, it would not be surprising if one day the allies simply recognized that the U.S. Secretary of State was an unnecessary and superfluous intermediary between themselves and the real audience.”