The South's military was placed on its highest non-wartime alert after the shells landed on Yeonpyeong island. Pyongyang accused the South of firing first. The Southern military said it had conducted exercises but shelling was directed away from the North.
This is one of the worst clashes since the Korean War ended, analysts say.
The larger difficulty with North Korea is that nothing seems to work, neither carrot nor stick. Over the course of the last decade or so the West has intermittently tried engagement with that strangest of states. But it seems to have produced no returns in terms of moderating the regime’s nuclear ambitions.
Earlier today North Korea conducted an artillery attack against the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. We are in close and continuing contact with our Korean allies. The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement. The United States is firmly committed to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability.
The South Korean military was conducting drills near Yeonpyeong island when the North opened fire. But that does not explain today's flare-up. More likely, the North Koreans are trying to set favourable ground for any talks that may begin (so they can extract concessions), while telling external and internal audiences that despite Kim Jong Ill having unveiled his youngest son Kim Jong Un as his heir apparent, succession will not weaken the North.
The West has relatively few levers to change North Korea's behaviour - except to swear to protect South Korea (and Japan) in case of a full-scale war; or offer North Korea assistance. Neither are attractive options.
Ultimately, solving the North Korea problem is going to happen when the Chinese finally decide that they are through with propping up an erratic regime that seems to be trying to turn itself into the modern world’s first hereditary dictatorship. When that happens, I think we’ll find things will change dramatically, and quickly, on the Korean peninsula.
(Photo: This picture taken on November 23, 2010 by a South Korean tourist shows huge plumes of smoke rising from Yeonpyeong island in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea on November 23, 2010. North Korea fired dozens of artillery shells onto a South Korean island on November 23, 2010, killing two people, setting homes ablaze and triggering an exchange of fire as the South's military went on top alert. By STR/AFP/Getty Images)