North Korea's New Hard Line

Plumes of smoke rise from Yeonpyeong after the North Korean military struck the island with artillery shells. AFP-Getty Images

North Korea's surprise attack last week on the South Korean outpost Yeonpyeong is sharply worrying not just because it marks the first time civilians have been targeted and killed since the end of the war more than a half century ago. Taken in context with its recent deadly brinksmanship—the sinking of the Cheonan, increasing border scuffles, the revelation of a secret nuclear-production plant—and it's clear this is no longer mere theatrics on the part of the Hermit Kingdom.

Western officials and Korean hands, however, continue to see—or hope—that this latest escalation is North Korea's jostling for a better hand at the negotiating table; in particular, the country continues to suffer severe food shortages. The uncomfortable truth? What we are seeing is more likely the start of a hardline policy shift, the likes of which the world has not seen since the Stalinist regime's last power succession, when the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, took the reins from his father, Kim Il-sung. Why this scenario is so terrifying is that outside powers—even China, the closest thing North Korea has to a major ally—have little leverage in changing the North's schizophrenic behavior.

PHOTOS: Inside North Korea Ilkka Uimonen

According to two top administration officials, who were not authorized to speak because they are involved in the ongoing deliberations, the White House is adopting a wait-and-see attitude, if nothing else because options to deal with an emboldened North Korean regime are so limited. Granted, the carrier USS Washington has been sent on a four-day joint drill with the South Korean Navy, but the move is largely symbolic. Washington is in a particularly tight spot because any concessions—namely returning to the Six-Party Talks—could be seen as encouraging this sort of bullying, say the two sources.

Indeed, last week's shelling took place in the same waters as the sinking this March of the South Korean military vessel the Cheonan, which killed 46 sailors. News also emerged in late November, from two returning American delegations, that the nuclear-armed regime has secretly built a second nuclear-production plant, with many analysts expecting the North Korean military to proceed with its third nuclear test shortly.

Growing evidence of North Korean drone flybys and threats in the months leading up to the raid hint at a premeditated attack. But the move looks to be directed inward, suggesting that the Dear Leader's third son, Kim Jong-un, has already begun the process of cementing his power base in the military-first society. The baby-faced heir apparent was thought to have played a critical role in the Cheonan sinking. These incidents are similar to the deadly antics of Kim Jong-il in his early years as dictator-in-waiting. In 1983 he orchestrated an assassination attempt on the South Korean president, who was traveling in Burma. The failed plot killed 21 people, including several members of the South Korean cabinet. Four years later he allegedly masterminded the bombing of a South Korean airliner bound for Seoul, according to North Korean agent Kim Hyon-hui. The attack killed all 115 on board.

This return to Cold War tactics marks the rise of the generals, who are cementing their control over the younger Kim. Since last year, when succession rumors began trickling out, the public voice of Pyongyang has emerged in increasingly bellicose tones from military agencies, such as the National Defense Commission and the Korean People's Army, rather than from the relatively moderate Foreign Ministry.

The power dynamic is changing fast: Kim Jong-il looks to be bending to his hawkish generals—rather than the other way around—in order to solidify the rickety succession to his son. Though he has no prior military experience, the younger Kim was given a four-star-general rank this September during a rare party conference.

It's this infighting, rather than an urge to return to the six-party negotiating table, that likely drove the recent aggressions. Historically, the North Koreans have never cut a deal with weak foreign leaders, and both Washington, with its midterm election rout of the Democrats, and Tokyo, with Naoto Kan's record-low approval ratings, have embattled leaders. More strategically, the Pyongyang regime may sense that it's not going to get a favorable—or long-lasting—deal until after 2012, when the U.S., South Korea, and Russia have their presidential elections and Hu Jintao steps down in China.

The internal jockeying has the grave potential to tip the Korean Peninsula into more serious or sustained fighting. Although the South Koreans returned artillery fire, their response has been measured, if not considered weak. But Seoul's stance is hardening, with the conservative president, Lee Myung-bak—who broke away from the country's longstanding "Sunshine Policy" toward the North—ordering island defenses to be fortified and more aggressive rules of engagement. After a visit by the American commanding officer in South Korea to Yeonpyeong on Friday, the North responded by launching an alarming artillery drill, and its official news agency warned in a statement that "the situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war." South Korea's defense minister was also replaced last week in the face of criticism over the country's meek military response. Not that there is much more room to work with: not long after the Cheonan sinking, Lee dropped demands for an official apology as a precondition for talks and has abandoned the idea of using loudspeakers to blast North Korean guards at the demilitarized zone with anticommunist propaganda.

The wild card is China, which according to analysts is growing increasingly exasperated with Pyongyang. While there is no public split over North Korea policy, the last thing Beijing wants is an emboldened Pyongyang setting off a confrontation that embroils China against the U.S. at a time when China's next leader, the untested Xi Jinping, is preparing to take over. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are calling their Chinese counterparts this week to plead for a tougher stand, possibly by urging Beijing's support for U.N. diplomatic action. Beijing has been loath to pressure its unstable neighbor; the question is whether Beijing sees these latest attacks as a real threat to regional peace, and thus a greater threat than instability within North Korea.

For now, no one can afford a war, and unless North Korea strikes the South Korean mainland, it seems as though the region could be in for a long slog of hand-wringing provocations. It looks like Kim and his goons have once again managed to come out on top, happy that they are at least back on the world's center stage.

With John Barry in Washington, Takashi Yokota in Tokyo, and Melinda Liu in Beijing