Austin Bay
No one died on March 31st when first North Korean and then retaliating South Korean artillery units fired some 800 rockets and shells into disputed boundary waters along the peninsula's western coast.

The absence of human fatalities is welcome news. So is the South's tit-for-tat firepower display.

For the last two years South Korean leaders have been telling the current northern dynast, Kim Jong Un, that South Korea will no longer bleed and bear it.

Economic aid now depends on demonstrated North Korean good behavior. Violent provocations by North Korea, whether at sea, on land or in the air, will draw forceful and convincingly violent southern responses.

Tube artillery rounds that are 155 mm are not the most refined of diplomatic instruments; like B-52s and aircraft carriers, they are concrete hard power. However, Seoul's tailored retaliation mirrored Pyongyang's provocation with diplomatic deftness. The northerners fired 500 rocket rounds and artillery shells around and below the Northern Limit Line. Below the line lies territory claimed by Seoul. In turn, southern gunners in the Republic of Korea Army pumped 300 shells into the sea zone.

Geysers galore. Not one round, fired by either side, hit land.

The lack of fatalities likely links to Seoul's policy of swift retaliation. South Korean officials reported that the sea-border shootout began with a naval coordination "hot line" phone call from the north. Pyongyang informed Seoul that northern artillery units would conduct a live-fire exercise along the NLL (a line the north does not recognize).

The phone call gave South Koreans living on two islands in the area, Yeonpyeong and Baeknyeong, time to take shelter in bunkers. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo quoted Seoul sources as saying that the North provided the unprecedented warning because civilians casualties might draw international political condemnation.

Perhaps. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is South Korean and he certainly commands an international audience. However, concern for dead South Korean civilians has never deterred past North Korean belligerence. Not so long ago North Korean propagandists thought photos of dead South Koreans sent precisely the right message.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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