Reporting from Seoul — Seoul residents expressed growing alarm late Tuesday after a deadly North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island, leading many to try to make sense of Pyongyang's latest provocation.
"It has finally come to this, the very day we all feared," said Douglas Shin, a Seoul activist. "This is real confrontation. If it goes a few notches higher, I'm worried that cooler heads will not prevail, and that there will be no point for standing down."
As South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his security chiefs huddled in an underground bunker to devise a response, several academics and former lawmakers called for caution.
"Civilian casualty is of grave concern, and the Seoul government should firmly denounce the North's action," said Chung Young-chul, a professor at Sogang University's Graduate School of Public Policy. "Having said that, South Korea shouldn't react emotionally, and further conflict should be avoided. We're not yet sure of the exact cause of the provocation."
The attack has further unsteadied nerves on an already tense Korean peninsula. In recent days, North Korea claimed that it was building a new uranium-enrichment facility at its main atomic plant.
Last month, amid lavish public spectacle, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il introduced his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as heir apparent in the impoverished nation of 24 million.
Seoul also claims that North Korea is responsible for the torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March that killed 46 crewmen. Pyongyang has denied the allegation.
Shin said he believed that North Korea's move was designed to help consolidate its military. "They are getting more confident, and this move seems to be an internal consolidation of power," he said.
"They're escalating their domestic phobia against an invented enemy. It's always against the name of the U.S., but in this case it's South Korea, which they call the U.S. puppet regime."
Others believe that North Korea was rallying public support behind Kim Jong Un.
"The North Korean government is trying to strengthen internal unity and solidify Kim Jong Un's succession by creating tension among its people," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
He said there was a message intended for the international community as well.
"Pyongyang is using shock treatment," he said. "The North is sending a clear message to the international community, and especially the United States, that there remains tension on the Korean peninsula."
But one former South Korean lawmaker said the "berserk" attempt to draw the U.S. into bilateral talks with North Korea would not work.
"It's pure brinksmanship against the U.S. and South Korean governments," said Lee Dong-bok, who is also a former negotiator with Pyongyang.
"I see this as a last-ditch effort to engage Washington and Seoul. They want to return to negotiations, but they want to do it on North Korean terms."
Lee predicted that North Korea's move would backfire: "They're overstepping. Now the ball is in the court of Washington and Seoul. How are they going to respond?
"I don't think they're going to come back with the kind of blind offensive that North Korea is looking for. President Lee Myung-bak is already calling for calm. The response is going to be more measured."
One North Korea-watcher said Pyongyang might have thought that it needed to further drive home the point that it was a nation capable of both developing nuclear power and using force when it believed it necessary.
Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea apparently didn't believe that the international community took the development of a new uranium-enrichment facility seriously, and decided on a more straightforward message of aggression.
"North Korea didn't get the desired effect when it made its nuclear facility public. South Korea didn't back down from its hard-line policy," he said. "On the contrary, Seoul and Washington have in the past come out strong on the North's provocative actions. Pyongyang wants to stir up tensions on the Korean peninsula."
firstname.lastname@example.org Ethan Kim is a researcher in the Times' Seoul Bureau