By the time the shooting was over, the North Korean vessel was "engulfed in flames", as a top South Korean official put it, and began limping back to its home port. Before it got there, the North Korean vessel had to put out a distress signal, and another North Korean boat tugged it the rest of the way.
If the North Koreans wanted to make a point before United States President Barack Obama's arrival in Tokyo on Friday at the start of a week-long swing through the region, the South Koreans countered more dramatically. It may have been an ideal chance for real live-fire, shoot-to-kill operation, but the episode may go down as a case of overkill by the South Koreans.
Pyongyang is now vowing revenge, accusing the South Koreans of a "rash act" for which they will have to "pay dearly". North Korea may not want to risk another encounter right away with a South Korean flotilla seemingly armed with far superior weaponry, including the latest computerized sighting devices. However, one thing is sure: the encounter won't make efforts at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear program — or weapons — any easier.
Obama, after the happy talking and toasting is said and done, is unlikely to make much progress on the nuclear issue in talks with Japanese, Chinese and South Korean leaders before his return on November 19 from the first Asian foray of his presidency. How could he, after laying out his view in remarks in an "interview" — responses all in writing, presumably by aides — to South Korea's Yonhap news agency even as he was on his way to Japan.
Obama wanted it known that he is totally in line with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, whom he will see at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore this weekend and again when arrives in Seoul on Wednesday. He and Lee "are in full agreement on the need to achieve a comprehensive resolution of the nuclear, missile and proliferation problems", he said, picking up on the "grand bargain" that Lee has been talking about, though not quite using that same term.
The shootout in the Yellow Sea may not stop the U.S. special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, from going to Pyongyang for bilateral talks in an effort to persuade North Korea to return to the six-party talks that it last attended in Beijing nearly one year ago. North Korea is eager to host him, and Bosworth seems almost as eager to go, but what do they need to discuss if "cooperation" between the U.S. and South Korea is as "extremely close" as Obama claimed in his message to Yonhap?
Obama's swing through Asia, moreover, is complicated by other issues that are sure to impinge on North Korea and its fearsome weapons of mass destruction, which also includes biological and chemical weapons that get far less publicity.
He and Japan's new Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama are already at odds on the sensitive issue of the presence of American forces on Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan. Hatoyama based much of his drive for power as leader of the Democratic Party of Japan on his promise to re-think, review and revise the U.S.-Japan alliance. This includes the deal reached three years ago under which the Americans would move U.S. Marines to less-crowded parts of Okinawa. Now the Japanese seem to want them moved all the way to Guam.
No way is either side likely to back down, but by the time the two leaders are done artfully getting around those differences, they're not going to have a lot of room left for talking about Korea. Anyway, sensitivities about North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens from Japanese soil in the late 1970s and early 1980s go so deep that the Japanese may be upset about any hint of the U.S. easing up on Obama's stated demand for the North to take "irreversible steps towards the complete elimination of its nuclear program".
Obama faces still more difficulties when he gets to Beijing. The Chinese may not like the idea of North Korea existing as "a nuclear power on their doorstep", as the Americans keep saying, but they've got other priorities.
As far as the Chinese are concerned, North Korea presents no military threat. The North Koreans, dependent on China for food and much else, may be difficult to deal with, as the Chinese acknowledge, but they are not really dangerous as long as Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, his family members and top aides remain in power.
North Korea would pose a real danger, however, if the ruling structure of the country collapsed. The specter of hundreds of thousands of impoverished, hungry, out-of-work North Koreans pouring across China's border as the nation's leadership dissolves is a nightmare that Chinese leaders do not want to contemplate.
Then there is North Korea's economic potential. Its mountains and valleys are a treasure trove of mineral wealth, including gold, zinc, titanium and uranium. It is not certain how much really exists, but the Chinese would like to have access to all of it.
The Chinese are not going to ruin relations with North Korea, which could complicate the influence, if not control, they have already gained over Pyongyang's state mining interests, just to mollify the U.S. over the nuclear issue. Nor does China, riding the crest of a wave of exports to the U.S., want to anger the Americans by appearing uncooperative on North Korea's nukes. Thus it is probable that Obama and China's President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will come up with nothing other than lofty statements bereft of real meaning.
Obama may have to reserve his most skilful diplomatic dance for Seoul. He and President Lee should have no trouble finding common ground between the stated U.S. desire for a "comprehensive package" and Lee's talk about a "grand bargain", but there is another major issue to face: the South Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement (FTA), which was hammered out before either of them attained their present high posts.
Lee had nothing but bad words for his predecessor, the late Roh Moo-hyun, when it came to Roh's handling of either the economy or North Korea, but he subscribes to what many see as the most enduring achievement of Roh's presidency, the "KORUS FTA", as it's known in South Korea. He badly wants the U.S. Congress to approve the deal, worked out in 16 months of sometimes acrimonious negotiations on both sides.
Both Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the FTA when they were senators from industrial states — Obama from Illinois, Clinton from New York, campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. U.S. motor vehicle manufacturers, and the unions that control their work forces, see the deal as hugely unfavorable to the U.S. auto industry. Obama has said he still sees problems in the FTA, and top Korean officials have said there's no way they're going to go along with revisions.
How or if the Americans and Koreans work their way through this impasse may be the biggest unanswered question of the trip. We can expect double-talk about the great U.S.-Korean alliance, and total agreement on the nuclear issue, but there's no quite telling the outcome of this one.
Under the circumstances, the North Koreans, if they are at all smart, will avoid any more shootouts in the Yellow Sea, as these only drive the U.S. and South Korea closer together. For North Korea, the best strategy may be to see the U.S. and South Korea at odds on the FTA — a topic that observers place right up there with the nuclear issue as the most important item on the agenda when Obama gets here.