On Tuesday the North Koreans fired artillery shells on Yeonpyeong Island killing two South Korean military personnel and wounding 18 others. The island lies in disputed waters of the two Korea's with the South claiming it lies within its territory and the North saying it lies within theirs.
Apparently the initial provocation (according to the North Korean version of events) was the South was initiating "provocative" artillery fire to which the North responded with its own artillery fire. The South maintains it was just firing "test shots" as part of the naval exercises it was conducting in the area.
The incident has caused the South to threaten retaliation against the North while President Obama responded with "outrage" and has just dispatched a carrier task force to the region to conduct joint naval exercises with the South Koreans.
Let's call this action the latest version of American "gunboat diplomacy" (more on this later in the piece).
The main question from here is why does South Korea conduct naval exercises in these disputed waters to begin with? If one looks at a map of the waters off the Korean coast it is obvious there is much open water and uninhabited islands clearly within the South's jurisdiction i.e. far away from what the North considers within its territory, which the South can utilize to conduct naval exercises that would not provoke the North.
These same disputed waters produced a more serious naval incident this past spring when a South Korean naval vessel was sunk killing 46 on board. The South produced "evidence" (part of a torpedo propeller with North Korean markings) that they said proved the North was responsible for the sinking. The North has denied the charge to this day.
It would seem in this highly charged atmosphere between the two Korean antagonists that doing ANYTHING that could be taken as provocative by the other side would not be carried out, much less even considered. One thinks this would be the case particularly with South Korea as a developed country and supposedly accomplished diplomatically while the North remains impoverished, backward, paranoid and easily provoked.
As to Obama's "gunboat diplomacy" sending a carrier task force to the area and conducting joint naval exercises with the South Koreans ; just what can that do other than further incite the North Koreans which could take such exercises as another provocation against them fueling their paranoia which they could interpret as an imminent threat which they must respond to.
Unintended wars have begun by one side initiating actions that were taken as provocations by the other side.
This seems hardly the way to diffuse a volatile situation with an unstable North Korea with a nuclear arsenal.