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Wednesday, November 24, 2010 STRATFOR.

COM Diary Archives

Deciphering North Korea's Provocations

North Korean artillery began shelling the island of Yeonpyeongdo in disputed waters Tuesday
afternoon (local time). The island is occupied by South Korea and located in the West (Yellow)
Sea south of the Northern Limit Line that South Korea claims as its territory, but north of the
Military Demarcation Line that North Korea claims as its territory. Homes were destroyed and
at least two South Korean soldiers were killed. South Korean artillery responded in kind, and
South Korean F-16 fighter jets were scrambled.

Looking back, in 1968, North Korean commandoes staged an attack on the Blue House, the
South Korean president¶s office and residence, in an assassination attempt against South
Korean President Park Chung Hee. In 1983, North Korean special agents killed four members
of the South Korean Cabinet on a visit to Myanmar, and in 1987 they caused an explosion on a
South Korean airplane that killed 115 people. There were running gunbattles in the hills of
South Korea in 1996 as Koreans pursued commandoes that had infiltrated the South via
submarine. Even today, small arms fire and even artillery fire are routinely exchanged between
the North and the South ² particularly in the disputed waters west of the Demilitarized Zone.
Naval skirmishes occurred there in 1999, 2002 and 2009, and it was in these same waters that
the South Korean corvette ChonAn (772) sank in March.

The ChonAn sinking combined with the wider context really brings this recent incident into
relief. Despite what Seoul and its allies consider to be irrefutable proof of Pyongyang¶s
culpability in the sinking of the ChonAn, there was no meaningful reprisal against the North
beyond posturing and rhetoric. Needless to say, international sanctions have not succeeded in
chastening North Korea in recent years.

History is rife with examples of sunken warships that either served as a pretext for war or were
ignored in the name of larger geopolitical interests. But while the ChonAn sinking was not
incomparable to other fatal incidents in North-South relations on the Korean Peninsula, it has
certainly been a new low-water mark for the last decade. And historical precedent or not, it is
generally worth taking note when one country does not respond to the aggression of another
that has committed an overt act of war by sinking a ship and taking dozens of sailors¶ lives.
Perhaps the most overt result of the ChonAn sinking other than some very serious internal
retrospection regarding South Korea¶s military and its defense posture was the tension between
the United States and South Korea over Washington¶s hesitancy to deploy an American aircraft
carrier at Seoul¶s request as a demonstration of the strength and resolve of the alliance (due to
Washington¶s sensitivity to Beijing¶s opposition).
Indeed, the subsequent compromise between Seoul and Washington was supposed to center on
an enhanced schedule of military exercises over time ² including both new exercises and the
expansion of existing ones. Among these was supposed to be the Hoguk 2010 exercise that
began Monday and included some 70,000 South Korean troops conducting maneuvers ²
including on the very island shelled by North Korea, Yeonpyeongdo ² an annual exercise in
which the United States has often participated. Yet American participation was withdrawn
earlier in the month at effectively the last minute over a ³scheduling conflict´ ² in reality once
again likely due to American concerns about the broader regional dynamic, including China¶s
and Japan¶s reaction (the drills would have involved U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa
partaking in an amphibious invasion of a small island, which would have been somewhat
provocative in the current tense atmosphere over island sovereignty in Northeast Asia). What¶s
more, the United States has little interest in seeing conflict flare up between the North and the
South, so its calculus may in fact be not only wider regional concerns but also specifically the
tension on the Korean Peninsula. In other words, part of the American motivation to withdraw
its participation in Hoguk 2010 may very well have been to avoid provoking North Korea, even
at the expense of further disappointing its South Korean ally.

Even before the Hoguk 2010 withdrawal, the U.S. hesitancy had enormous impact on Seoul,
which, in the South Korean mind, was refused immediate and unhesitating reinforcement by its
most important ally at the worst possible moment because of other American interests in the
region. The state of the alliance is still strong, and exercises at more convenient times can be
expected. But the course of events in 2010 in terms of the American commitment to the
alliance may well define South Korean strategic thinking for a decade.

For North Korea, on the other hand, it is hard to imagine a more successful course of events. It
struck at its southern rival with impunity and, as a bonus, provoked potentially lasting tensions
in the military alliance arrayed against it. The North also wants to avoid all-out war, so
Pyongyang is not without its disincentives in terms of provoking Seoul. Note that North
Korea¶s actions have been limited to disputed areas and of a nature that would be difficult to
interpret as a prelude to a larger, broader military assault (one to which the South Korean
military would be forced to respond). Instead Pyongyang appears to be calling attention to the
disputed maritime border, at least in part a bid to emphasize the need for a peace treaty or some
similar settlement that would resolve the disadvantageous status quo in the sea and give
Pyongyang the assurances of non-aggression from the United States that it desires.

Yet Pyongyang enjoys a significant trump card ² its ³nuclear´ option. By this, STRATFOR
does not mean North Korea¶s fledgling nuclear program, which may or may not include
workable atomic devices. We mean the legions of hardened conventional artillery positions
within range of downtown Seoul and able to rain down sustained fire upon the South Korean
capital, home to about 46 percent of the country¶s population and source of about 24 percent of
its gross domestic product. Though North Korea¶s notoriously irrational behavior is actually
deliberate, carefully cultivated and purposeful, Seoul is still an enormous thing to gamble with,
and South Korea ² and the United States, for that matter ² can hardly be faulted for not
wanting to gamble it on military reprisals in response to what amount to (admittedly lethal)
shenanigans in outlying disputed areas.
The problem that has emerged for the United States and its allies is that ³red lines´ exist only if
they are enforced, and both Iran and North Korea have become expert at pushing and stretching
them as they see fit. Though (despite rhetoric and appearances) Pyongyang absolutely wants to
avoid war, especially during the transition of power, it has now established considerable room
to maneuver and push aggressively against its southern rival.

So, what exactly is Pyongyang pushing for? What does it seek to achieve through the exertion
of this pressure? Is it still within the realm of its behavior throughout most of the past decade,
in which provocations were intended to give it the upper hand in international negotiations, or
is it now asking for something more? The North Korean regime has been extraordinarily
deliberate and calculating, and one would think it remains so. But is this ability to calculate
weakening as a result of the internal strains of the power transition, or other unseen factors?
Finally, what is Pyongyang ultimately aiming at as it takes advantage of South Korea¶s
inability to respond?