The year began and ended with North Korea in the news. In March, North Korea torpedoed the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. In November, the world learned of the existence of a North Korean uranium enrichment plant, indicating that it had another route to a nuclear bomb, other than the existing plutonium-based method. Next, North Korean troops shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two civilians and two marines, allegedly by way of warning about military exercises by its neighbour. At a rally in Seoul, coinciding with the funerals of the marines, veterans cried: "It's time for action. Time for retaliation. Let's hit the presidential palace in Pyongyang." This public mood has led the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to abandon his predecessor's Sunshine Policy of accommodation and absorbing North Korean attacks in favour of dire warnings of retaliation. The arrival of the US nuclear carrier group USS George Washington in Korean waters for "high-intensity" war games, with more scheduled off Japan, further underlines the gravity of the current crisis. It seems likely that the ailing Kim Jong-il is deliberately ratcheting up the tension in order to extort both more aid and to secure the smooth succession of his son Kim Jong-un.
The latest crisis has coincided with the Wikileaks revelations of what a few Chinese officials had said about their North Korean ally, the erratic "spoiled child" of Pyongyang. These leaks led to intense speculation that a new generation of Chinese leaders was prepared to ditch Kim Jong-il's regime, if the price was right. Beijing was said to have two major concerns: the prospect of North Korean refugees burdening China should the regime implode, and the US extending its armed presence from the DMZ (the de facto birder between North and South) to the Yalu River, still a live concern 65 years after Chinese intervention in the Korean War.
In the event of future reunification, South Korean officials assured Beijing that no US forces would be stationed north of the DMZ, and that China would be granted extensive mining rights in northern Korea in return for cutting loose the Kims.