Hard choices for South Korea after clashes

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at Defence Ministry briefing
Image caption President Lee Myung-bak faces a difficult decision on what further steps to take

For those who've watched the periodic ebb and flow of tension on the peninsula over the years, this could be seen as business as usual from North Korea.

It almost certainly isn't. The image of plumes of smoke rising from a shell-damaged, burning village, with a terrified population running for cover is something many older Koreans will have hoped they would never see again.

It is of a different order from the occasional exchanges of fire that break out between the North and South Korean navies, or the odd bullet pinging across front-line DMZ positions.

Despite that there is no sense of panic here in the capital Seoul.

This busy, bustling city has been going about life as normal, although the money markets have been rattled and, below the surface, people are undoubtedly concerned.

But the reality is most people see little point in worrying, so there's no hoarding of provisions or desperate flurry of last-minute flight bookings out of here. North Korea is simply a fact of life that South Koreans have learned to live with for many years.

The South Korean government is grappling with the same reality. Its military hit back today with some force, sending 80 shells onto North Korean artillery positions and causing what it called "significant damage".

But any larger scale retaliation is out of the question because a major escalation would have such dreadful consequences for life, property and the wider economy. South Korea simply has too much to lose.

Old dilemma

So what can the government do?

There is of course the diplomatic route, another appeal to the UN Security Council perhaps.

But beyond words of condemnation, just as with the sinking of the South Korean warship earlier this year, it's hard to see much that can be gained through this route either. North Korea is already one of the world's most heavily sanctioned countries, and even that hasn't stopped it building a state-of-the-art uranium enrichment facility in recent months.

South Korean commentators on the left of the political spectrum will suggest that the government has invited some of this trouble on itself.

The conservative administration of Lee Myung-bak has walked away from the rapprochement and engagement of his liberal predecessors, insisting that aid and trade with the North be conditional on steps towards nuclear disarmament.

Pyongyang has certainly been angered by this stance. The debate raises an old and thorny dilemma. Is it better to appease a dangerous foe or back him into a corner?

But even South Korea's own political decisions may, in the end, have little bearing on North Korea's behaviour.

There is some suggestion these recent actions, the alleged torpedoing of the South Korean warship and now the shelling of South Korean territory, are all something to do with the North's own internal politics in a period of risky transition as power passes from an ailing Kim Jong-il to his youngest son.

If the heir apparent is trying to earn his stripes in the eyes of a hardline military elite then it spells a period of further, dangerous unpredictability and it's difficult to know what any government can do about it.