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Updated: Nov 29, 2010
CNS Experts Available for Comment on North Korea's Artillery Bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island and Revelation of LWR and Uranium Enrichment at Yongbyon
On November 23, 2010, North Korea began shelling the southern area of South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island. The shelling occurred in two volleys, with approximately 20 shells in the first and 100 shells in a second. The North Korean artillery volley damaged an ROK marine barracks, a police office, a township administration office and several private residences. North Korea used 122-mm Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) shells in the attack. South Korea responded with a volley of 80 shells of K-9 self-propelled artillery.
President Lee Myung-bak put ROK forces on the five islands in the region on alert-level Jindotgae 1(진돗개 하나), the highest of three levels, indicating an attack by North Korea and recalling all officers and soldiers to report for duty. U.S. and ROK forces were put on WATCHCON 2 indicating a vital threat, the same level as was used after South Korea's naval corvette, the Cheonan, was torpedoed in March 2010. President Lee also had the Suwon Korean Air Force Group 10, made up of F-15 and F-16s and the Pyeongtaek 2 Navy Force on alert.
Electricity and telephone communications were cut to the island's residents. South Korean authorities evacuated approximately 1,700 locals to 19 air-raid shelters on the island. The North Korean attack killed two South Korean marines, and inured 15 other military personnel, according to South Korean reports. The attack also killed two local construction workers and injured three residents. One resident, a high school student, remains missing. There are no damage reports from North Korea.
The attack came after North Korea warned that they would not tolerate South Korea's annual Honguk training exercises via telegraph the morning of 23 November. Pyongyang's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) asserts that South Korea attacked them first during the training; however ROK military officials attest that they were firing in a southwesterly direction.
In response to the attack, United States Forces Korea (USFK) announced that the USS George Washington carrier strike group would travel to the waters west of the Korean Peninsula to engage in exercises with South Korea from 28 November to 1 December.
The attack followed North Korea's decision to use a visit by U.S. nuclear expert Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker to the Yongbyon facility in North Korea to reveal construction of a light water reactor (LWR) and accompanying gas centrifuge facility for enriching uranium. Construction on the 25-30 MW(e) experimental LWR is in the early stages with an optimistic target operation date of 2012 that few Western experts find credible.
North Korea also claims the gas centrifuge facility, located at the former site of the fuel fabrication facility, contains 2,000 centrifuges. Hecker stated that the facility appeared to be designed for the production of low enriched uranium for the civilian use of the LWR. However, such facilities can be converted to provide highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes. A high-level North Korean government official reiterated to Hecker that North Korea is willing to engage the United States on the basis of the October 2000 Joint Communiqué, which focused on broader issues of security and normalization rather than denuclearization.
Both Hecker's visit and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island indicate a level of forethought and planning. Separately, the incidents can be seen as shaping the credentials of successor Kim Jong-un as he attempts to fill the shoes of his father Kim Jong-il. Senior Kim himself had more time to train before donning the mantel of "Dear Leader" after his own father Kim Il-sung died in 1994. The compressed time-frame and Kim Jong-il's health problems contribute to the flurry of recent activity in North Korea, which may not be over. Satellite imagery of North Korea's nuclear test site shows activity, possibly indicating preparations for a third nuclear test. Hopefully such a test can be averted, however Japanese press reports that U.S. Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix landed at Katena Air Base in Japan on 22 November. The Constant Phoenix is a special purpose vehicle designed to collect air samples to detect nuclear tests. It also monitored North Korea's second nuclear test in 2009.
Two articles by CNS experts examining recent developments in North Korea and its confrontation with South Korea:
CNS experts familiar with North Korea's nuclear program are also available for comment:
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