The exchange of shellfire between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea on November 23, 2010, constitutes one of the most serious escalations of regional tension since the Korean War armistice of 1953. The immediate context of the incident is the South's annual military exercises, which include participation by some of the 28,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea. The North has called the drills “dangerous war games,” adding that the naval element thereof is especially provocative. On this occasion, North Korea warned the South to cease naval exercises near the marine border, the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea; when Southern forces commenced artillery fire into disputed waters, Pyongyang responded by shelling Yeonpyeong Island, which lies just south of the NLL. Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed, and 18 other people injured. The U.S. has condemned North Korea's action, saying it violates the armistice agreement; Russia has stressed the importance of non-escalation; China has called on both sides to do more to strengthen regional peace and stability; and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has advocated restraint. What is clear is that both parties have been in the wrong in bringing about this crisis.

While both Koreas appear cautious about further escalation, the North is almost certainly expressing intense frustration at Southern actions and the continuing international isolation to which it has been subjected. Pyongyang wants direct talks with Washington, but the Obama administration has made complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula a precondition for the six-nation talks, which have been in abeyance for two years. In any case, U.S.-led sanctions and Western intelligence have failed; the DPRK recently unveiled new uranium-enrichment facilities, which had been built with foreign components. Unfortunately, South Korea's President, Lee Myung-bak, has maintained a confrontational attitude towards the North since he took office. Furthermore, neither the U.S. nor South Korea appears to recognise Pyongyang's anger at being labelled part of the “Axis of Evil” by George W. Bush; President Obama has called North Korea a “serious threat.” Although China, as the main moderating influence in the region, continues to provide North Korea with aid and assistance and can block U.N. Security Council censure of its southern neighbour, there can be no substitute for a peace treaty to end the Korean War, and for the recognition by the rest of the world of the DPRK's borders and legitimacy. Meanwhile, every effort must be made to persuade the two Koreas to behave sensibly and responsibly.