North Korea has nuclear weapons and South Korea has the US to offer nuclear cover.
South and North Korea have been the best of enemies for over 50 years. On 23 November, strained ties went to snapping point when the North fired shells at the tiny South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Four soldiers were killed. An exchange of fire between the two sides ensued, which was pretty serious even by Korean standards.
The South Korean military declared ‘crisis status’, threatened strikes, and probably meant it too. Multiple rocket launchers and long-range howitzers (short-barrel artillery pieces) were lined up on the island, and on 29 November, the island’s inhabitants were told to take shelter the following morning. Military officials later said plans to fire artillery into the waters south of the island had been called off.
At the time of the attack, South Korea was beginning an annual nationwide military drill called Safeguarding the Nation with 70,000 troops participating. Pyongyang described this as “a means to provoke a war”.
Why is the world alarmed? North Korea has nuclear weapons and has shown itself to be willing to use them if pushed into a corner. It’s an ultra secretive country which, treating UN sanctions against it with disdain, has wilfully cut itself off from the outside world. Its reclusive leader Kim Jong-II is almost a deity there, a throwback to another age.
South Korea does not have nuclear weapons but has the US’s nuclear umbrella. And nuclear war in Asia is not good news for India.
The recent hostilities have been termed by some as the worst since the Korean War of 1950-53. In that one, the North was supported by China and the Soviet Union, and the South bolstered by the US. Even today, the only country which has any clue what is happening inside North Korea is China.