The show of force will be dramatic, but North Korea is not expected to respond with gunfire as long as the Americans are operating off South Korea's west coast. They would not, in any case, be able to do much harm to the Americans, whose forces will remain well below the Northern Limit Line below which the U.S. and South Koreans say North Korean ships are banned.
North Korea has breathed fresh outrage, promising to launch attacks against hostile forces intruding so much as one millimeter into their own waters. It was on that pretext that North Korea on Tuesday fired 170 shells into an island populated mainly by fishermen and farmers living near bases where South Korean marines were operating.
Hours after the barrage, North Korea was boasting of its success in defeating the South, and the sense now is that the North has made its point. North Korean forces may strike again anywhere, on sea and along the 160-mile land border between the two Koreas, taking South Korea and the U.S. by surprise.
Given that strategy, the appearance of USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea is clearly another act in the drama but not a sign of mounting hostilities. The U.S. command covered the announcement in a veneer of verbiage intended to show that the operation was not only "defensive in nature" but "well planned before yesterday's unprovoked attack".
The purpose, said the command, was "to improve our military interoperability" — meaning coordination with South Koreans — while demonstrating "the strength of the Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance and our commitment to regional stability through deterrence."
The real problem, however, is that the U.S. and South Korea seem incapable of persuading China to bring enough pressure on North Korea to persuade the North to pull back from a strategy of intermittent violence and intimidation.
The United States has been pleading with China to bring North Korea into line as a prerequisite for any consideration of returning to negotiations.
President Barack Obama buttressed American diplomatic gestures during a half-hour telephone conversation with South Korea's President Lee Myung-Bak. Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, passing on the word from Lee's staff at the Blue House, said that Obama had told Lee that China needed to take a firm stand against the North. A Blue House spokesman said the two leaders "agreed that the indiscriminate attack against the territory of the Republic of Korea and its civilians was a premeditated provocation".
Neither Obama nor Lee, however, seems willing to go beyond joint exercises.
They apparently did not discuss the critical question of at what stage the United States would send troops to South Korea's defense with orders to fire back if North Korean forces fired on South Koreans. Nor have any elements of the 28,500 Americans in uniform here been ordered to join the South Koreans in the Yellow Sea on anything other than training exercises.
All that, however, hardly diminishes the medium and long-range problems posed by a regime in the midst of a leadership transition that one can only guess at.
The current speculation in Seoul is that again Kim Jong-Il's son and heir presumptive, Kim Jong-Un, has spurred on the aggressive policy to show his own toughness and win support among hard-line generals. The kid, in his late 20s, would not be giving orders to grizzled generals who got their first taste of combat in the Korean War, but he could well see his advocacy of unremitting toughness as a means to show the generals he's ready to take over power whenever his ailing father leaves the scene.
In a curious footnote to a day of feverish alarm, father and son were reported yesterday to have been visiting a soybean factory. They also, however, have been visiting military units in recent months, getting the image of the son before people who had never heard of him until he appeared at a Workers' Party Conference and then a parade on Oct. 20 that marked the party's 65th anniversary.
South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Tae-Young supported that theory in light of North Korea's revelation of a new uranium enrichment plant nearing completion at its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon. The North's aging five-megawatt reactor has already has already fabricated enough material with plutonium at its core for up to a dozen warheads, according to intelligence estimates.
Kim said he believed North Korea had staged Tuesday's barrage "to give Kim Jong-Un the status of a strong leader" while U.S. experts, back in Washington, reported on their visit to the uranium-enrichment facility on November 12.
As emotions engendered by the attack settled down, South Korea's financial gurus got down to business as usual. The Bank of Korea said it would inject funds into the market to combat "excessive herd behavior" — that is, an instinct to sell off stock in a hurry in response to the attack. The Finance Ministry put out a statement promising "timely action" in cooperation with the central bank.
The financial chieftains held what was described as an "emergency meeting." Their statements suggested fears over the economic fallout may be greater than those of a wider conflict that many believe is not going to happen while U.S. and South Korean forces are playing war games off the west coast.