North Korea shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong island Tuesday, killing two South Korean marines and injuring more than a dozen people. South Korea returned fire. Both sides claimed that the other fired first.
While the South has engaged in past attacks – notably in November 2009, when it fired on a North Korean patrol boat, and in June 1999, when it sunk a North Korean vessel – history shows that Pyongyang is often the instigator. A 2007 report from the US Congressional Research Service documents dozens of provocations, ranging from low-level naval warfare to assassinations of South Korean cabinet officers.
Here are seven examples of the North's military provocations over the past decade.
North Korean attack on South
On Nov. 27, 2001, North Korean soldiers opened fire across the demilitarized border zone at a South Korean guardpost. South Korean soldiers responded with fire, though none were killed from either side. Another exchange of fire would not be recorded until July 23, 2003.
Despite the Nov. 27 incident, two days later the United States reaffirmed it would provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea and desired to resume talks.
And even after President George W. Bush in January 2002 characterized North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as part of the so-called “axis of evil,” Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated that Washington was willing to resume dialogue with the North at "any time, any place, or anywhere without any preconditions."
On June 29, 2002, two North Korean patrol ships crossed into the South Korean-controlled area of the Yellow Sea and opened fire on a South Korean patrol ship, sinking it and killing four civilians. Happening during the final matches of the 2002 World Cup, which was jointly hosted by Seoul and Tokyo, the incident dashed hopes that the soccer tournament might warm relations between neighbors.
The skirmish occurred just after Washington had signaled it was ready to visit Pyongyang and resume peace talks, leading some analysts to speculate the incident was a North Korean delay tactic, the Monitor then reported.
As with the most recent exchange of fire, both the North and South blamed the other for initiating the attack. The South demanded an apology, which a North Korean Navy spokesman called "the height of impudence.'' CNN estimated then that some 30 North Korean sailors were killed or injured in retaliatory fire.
"The military provocation of preemptive firing by a North Korean Navy patrol ship is a clear violation of the armistice and an act that raises tension on the Korean peninsula. We cannot keep silent," said South Korean President Kim Dae-jun, echoing remarks that would be repeated by other leaders after skirmishes with the reclusive North.
A series of North Korean moves in late February and early March of 2003 appeared to send a signal to the incoming South Korean president and test US resolve in the region.
On Feb. 24, 2003, North Korea fired a single missile into the sea between South Korea and Japan, a day before South Korea swore in President Roh Moo-hyun. "The move seemed carefully calibrated to draw attention without being highly provocative ? a flashing signal rather than a red light," The New York Times then reported. "In its last missile test, in 1998, North Korea launched a missile that flew over Japanese territory, setting off a crisis between the countries."
A week later, on March 2, four North Korean jets intercepted an unarmed US reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the Sea of Japan. The jets shadowed the plane for 22 minutes. On March 10, North Korea fired a second missile into the sea between South Korea and Japan in as many weeks.
On July 4, 2006, Kim Jong-il test launched seven missiles, including the 118-ft.-long Taepodong-2 missile potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. North Korean officials called it part of "regular military drills to strengthen self-defense."
The missiles mostly landed in Russian waters. Japan suspended contacts with the North and called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting, although Russia and China resisted calls for sanctions on North Korea.
The missile test ? as with the Nov. 23, 2010, incident ? was thought to be an attempt by Kim Jong-il to increase his bargaining power at approaching six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. "Kim wants more cards to play in the six-party talks. But I think he has now miscalculated," Jia Qingguo, associate dean of the international studies department at Beijing University, told the Monitor then. "Kim may think he is getting more cards. But I think this will only make the voice of the hard-liners in the US and Japan stronger."
As then-Beijing bureau chief Robert Marquand wrote: "Kim, like his father, runs his poor and isolated country on a complex principle of "self-reliance" called Juche, which has turned North Korea into something of a cult of personality. Kim can't afford to open his society as that could force changes that could undermine Juche. Yet North Korea is in a part of Asia that is modernizing rapidly ? causing unknown strains on the North's system."
The same is being speculated of the most recent provocation, with Kim's son ? and heir apparent ? now seeking to project his own image.
On March 23, 2008, North Korea test-launched a barrage of short-range missiles. "That move was prompted by the North's anger over South Korean statements that any expansion of the [joint industrial zone] project in the border city of Kaesong would only happen if the North resolved the international standoff over its nuclear weapons," the Associated Press reported.
The test fire was also seen as a response to the South Korean government's firm stance on relations with Pyongyang, with the South's newly instated conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, ending a decade of "Sunshine policy" engagement with the North.
On March 26, 2010, a North Korean submarine in the Yellow Sea fired a torpedo at the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan, according to the subsequent findings of an international investigation. The ship sank and 46 sailors died.
"The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine,” a report concluded. “There is no other plausible explanation.”
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak initially promised “resolute countermeasures” to make North Korea “admit its wrongdoings,” but the North has continued to deny responsibility, even offering to send its own investigators to South Korea to examine the evidence.
The United States subsequently held a series of naval exercises with South Korea, despite protests from China, which did not acknowledge the North’s responsibility in the attack on the Cheonan. The exercise was aimed at showing muscle to North Korea, the Monitor reported.
On Oct. 29, 2010, North Korean troops fired precisely two shots near a South Korean guard post along the border, prompting the South to fire three shots in return. It was believed to be the first exchange of fire on land since 2006, the Guardian reported.
The skirmish came six months after the sinking of the South Korean naval corvette Cheonan, for which the South said it was cutting off diplomatic ties with the North until Pyongyang issued an apology. But instead of offering any such reconciliation, the North warned on Oct. 29 ? coinciding with the exchange of military fire ? that bilateral relations would face a "catastrophic impact" if the South continued to reject talks, reported Agence France-Presse.