"The United States has only one choice in dealing with North Korea, even after its deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island," writes Tim Shorrock, an investigative journalist who has covered Korea for more than 30 years. "Negotiate directly with its government, forge an agreement to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, and move towards a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War." On Wednesday, South Korea found the bodies of two civilians killed in the North Korean attack. The bombardment also killed two South Korean soldiers, wounded 18 others, and set dozens of homes ablaze. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: South Korea has found the bodies of two civilians killed in a North Korean artillery bombardment Tuesday. The attack also killed two South Korean soldiers, wounded 18 others, and set dozens of homes ablaze. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
It began when North Korea said the South had ignored repeated warnings not to hold military exercises near the countries’ disputed maritime border. South Korea was holding live fire drills but said it was not firing towards the north. North Korea responded by shelling the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. South Korea retaliated by firing 80 rounds of K9 artillery and placing F-15 fighter jets on alert. Casualties in North Korea are unknown.
President Obama telephoned South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday to pledge U.S. support. In an interview with Barbara Walters, Obama called the attack “just one more provocative incident” and called on China to take a stand against North Korea. Earlier Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner described the attack as unprovoked.
MARK TONER: I think that everybody involved is stunned by North Korea’s provocative actions. I believe the President referred to it as outrageous and that we are working again within an established framework with our partners so that we have a deliberate approach to this. We’re not going to respond willy-nilly.
AMY GOODMAN: The fighting came just days after it was revealed North Korea had made rapid advances in enriching uranium at a previously undisclosed plant.
For more, I’m joined by Tim Shorrock, an investigative journalist who’s covered Korea for more than 30 years, grew up partly in South Korea. He joins me from Washington, D.C.
Tim, welcome to Democracy Now! First, explain exactly what happened.
TIM SHORROCK: Over the last couple of days, the South Korean military, which is part of a joint command with the United States military, held massive exercises in a disputed area — near the disputed maritime zone area on the west coast of Korea. These exercises had been planned months in advance, and North Korea of course knew about them. They involved tens of thousands of South Korean soldiers, many warships and air force planes, as well as personnel from the United States Marines and Air Force. And these exercises, they have — as you said, they’re live fire exercises.
North Korea, shortly before, in the days leading up to these exercises, warned that they would react if shells fell in their area of this maritime line, demarcation line, which they dispute and have disputed for years. Apparently, some shells did land on their side of this line, and they retaliated by shelling this island and causing many — you know, some casualties. And it was a very serious and grave incident that deserves very serious and sober analysis, which we have not seen in the U.S. media over the past 24 hours. That’s what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by what has taken place? The media is making a great deal of the North Korean leader taking his young son, heir apparent, on a tour of a soy sauce factory while all this was going on.
TIM SHORROCK: Well, you’re always kind of surprised when these things happen. But, you know, in the context of the last few years, the last 50 years, it’s really not that surprising, particularly if you look at this maritime zone and particularly if you look at the history of U.S.-South Korea military and its, you know, standoff with the North Korean regime.
First of all, over the last few years, there’s increasing tensions over this zone. As I said, this border area in the sea, this border line, was actually imposed unilaterally by the United States Navy in 1953, right after the Korean War. That line has never been recognized by North Korea, nor by the international community. And a few years ago, and under the former presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, there was actually a meeting, a summit meeting, between the president of South Korea and Kim Jong-il, the dictator of North Korea. And they sat down and worked out a sort of a set of agreements to try to decrease tensions in that maritime area, including making a free fishing zone and having discussions to alleviate the tension and make sure there were no incidents like this. This new president, Lee, is a very conservative man who has rejected the former Sunshine policies of Kim Dae-jung and his predecessor, who were much more open and tried to cement closer relationships and end the enmity between North and South Korea. Lee unilaterally pulled away from this agreement.
And over the last few years, our listeners and watchers will remember, there’s been quite a few incidents. Earlier this year, in March 2010, a South Korean naval ship was blown up, allegedly by North Korea, by a torpedo and sank, killing about 33 sailors. This was also a very serious incident. And many people who watch North Korea believe that that particular attack, if North Korea did it, was in retaliation for an incident that took place last year, when South Korea fired on a North Korea ship that had crossed the line, and many North Korean sailors were killed in that attack. And so, you know, this has been going on. And so, I think the very first thing that needs to be done is it would be important to restore some kind of discussion, some kind of negotiation, so they could decrease tensions in that specific area.
AMY GOODMAN: This all comes after a U.S. scientist, Stanford Professor Siegfried Hecker, said — after visiting North Korea, said the officials gave him a tour of a previously undisclosed uranium enrichment plant, saying that it appears to have more than a thousand centrifuges, saying that it appears primarily for civilian nuclear power but added it could be converted to produce highly enriched uranium. The Guardian newspaper is saying international concern was already running high after reports North Korea had developed a new uranium enrichment facility that would give it a source of material for nuclear bombs. Many analysts believe the attack was intended to grab U.S. attention and skew the ground for negotiations over denuclearization in favor of Pyongyang. Tim Shorrock?
TIM SHORROCK: Well, that very well could be. Yes, there’s this new uranium plant that Mr. Hecker saw. He was quite surprised. He was also very startled by the fact that they had all these modern centrifuges, which they obtained somehow despite this embargo that President Obama and the United Nations have slapped on North Korea. So, clearly, sanctions have not worked in deterring it from building this plant, which may be — actually, you know, it could be used for peaceful atomic power, or it could later be used, you know, to transform it into weapon-grade material for bombs.
The question is, why did they do this? They invited three scientists from America to show it to them. Yes, the North Koreans want to have — and have been saying this for years, in fact — they want to have direct negotiations with the United States to end this nuclear standoff. Just last week, three independent Americans, two former State Department people and an independent social scientist who has been there many — who’s gone there many times, met with senior North Korean officials, and they were told that North Korea would transfer all of its nuclear material to a third country, its bomb-making material to a third country, if the United States would commit itself to having no hostile intentions toward North Korea, which is something that the United States has said before in public agreements. So they clearly want to have direct negotiations.
And many people who have visited North Korea, including Mr. Hecker, who just came back and spoke in Washington yesterday, say that we have no choice, really, but to recognize that North Korea is a sovereign nation, it has its own territorial integrity and interests, despite what you may think about the regime, and that to end this crisis, to end this nuclear standoff and stop its nuclear bomb program, we have to negotiate directly with North Korea and reach some agreements.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock —
TIM SHORROCK: And I believe that that could start something that could end — we could have a peace agreement, eventually, to end the Korean War, which has never ended.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
TIM SHORROCK: The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice. That’s not a peace agreement. We are still in a state of war after all those years. North Korea has been asking for a peace agreement, a formal peace agreement, to actually end the North Korean-U.S. standoff. They are the two parties to the armistice. And, of course, South Korea would be involved, as well. But a peace agreement could also deal with these border issues, this line of demarcation, which the North Korean disputes. If you could have some kind of negotiation and come to an agreement to finally end the Korean War, I think that would alleviate a lot of the tension. After all, this is the most militarized border in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, China, where does it fit into this picture?
TIM SHORROCK: China plays a very important role. They’re North Korea’s closest ally. They are very concerned about what could happen if North Korea imploded or there was a military — if there was a war, a military crisis in the peninsula. And they’re very close to the North Korean leadership. You know, Kim Jong-il and his son have been to China, and they’ve looked at China’s economic development and are studying ways to open up their economy more to capitalist expansion and, you know, multinational companies, like China has, and have some kind of capitalism there to have some economic growth and benefits for the people there. And so, I think China plays a very important role in terms of trying to alleviate the crisis and moving all sides to some kind of negotiated settlement.
AMY GOODMAN:* Tim, we just have less than a minute, but I wanted to ask you a different question. It’s about the anti-imperialist scholar Chalmers Johnson, who just died this past weekend. You wrote a long tribute to him on your site.
*TIM SHORROCK: We Americans, particularly those of us on the left who have studied the American role in the world, owe Chalmers Johnson a huge debt for exposing our empire as it is and talking clearly about the huge, enormous expansion of American military bases around the world and what that means. He was a truthful man. He once supported the Vietnam War, and he had the courage as an intellectual to come around and say he was wrong. And that is a rare thing in America these days. And I really hail Chalmers Johnson and praise him for his work and urge your listeners to read his books.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Shorrock, I want to thank you very much for you being with us. We’ll link you our interview, the hour we spent with Chalmers Johnson in 2007. We played an excerpt of it this week. Tim Shorrock, investigative journalist, has covered Korea for more than 30 years. He’s author of the book Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing.