Tuesday, 23 November 2010

North Korea: provocation without end

Today’s artillery duel between the two Koreas suggests that the hermit dictatorship is keen to keep pushing the boundaries of provocation. The North has issued one of its typical denunciations, accusing the South of instigating the firefight, which has reportedly left at least two South Korean marines killed, in addition to fifteen further civilian and military casualties.

The clash appears – as usual – to have been stage-managed by Kim Jong Il’s Stalinist regime. The South had embarked on a military exercise (which appears to have included live firing) close to the border, to which the North quickly responded by bombarding the (inhabited) island of Yeonpyeong. The South reportedly replied with some limited counter-fire against the North's coastal artillery batteries (no word, naturally, on DPRK losses), as well as launching some F16 fighters over the conflict zone, but these did not open fire. North Korea seems to have caused most of the damage.

This sequence of events begs a few questions. Firstly, why was the South conducting an exercise close to the North’s border? Sure, few would believe the North’s usual cock-and-bull story about the South attacking first, but why play war games in such proximity to the North if they provide it with the pretext for violence? Secondly, and this is barely a question at all, was this clash the result of central planning by the North Koreans? Almost certainly the answer is yes, to judge by the speed of their attack.

Most sources have been quick to link internal politics with the events. Kim Jong Un, recently promoted to general and now unanimously tipped to succeed his father, needs to galvanise the army behind him to pave way for an orderly transition before his sickly-looking dad hands over the reins. The link makes sense, presuming that Un played some sort of leadership role in managing today’s events, allowing him to showcase some leadership traits and stamp his authority over the military.

Yeonpyeong’s residents ran for cover as shells rained down, while in Seoul the stock market took a hit towards the end of the day’s trading, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government held a planning meeting from the safety of an underground bunker. But apart from that, it is notable that such a violent incident has led to such a limited response. Seoul’s residents are quite hardened to the North’s acts of provocation, living as they do within a short missile-flight away from its stockpiles of thousands of rockets, missiles and guns of all shapes and sizes, mostly pointed at the South Korean capital.

In the context of today, the torpedoing of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March may have represented a return to a period of extreme provocation. The regime flits between engagement at the negotiating table and throwing its toys out of the pram through violence and threats. It supposedly hankers after recognition as a nuclear power, as well as continuing to expect aid from its neighbours.

It is precisely because the North is such an economic basket case that the hands of its neighbours are tied. Nobody wants it to collapse, least of all South Korea and China, both of whom would face an immediate humanitarian as well as military crisis if the North became a failed state (with nukes thrown in for good measure).

China is of course the North’s traditional backer, but nowadays sees it as a minor embarrassment. The Middle Kingdom is managing its own economic revolution, aimed at becoming a global superpower by the middle of the century, and has no desire to see a wave of refugees spill over its Korean border. That is tying Chinese hands, preventing them playing the cards they hold in terms of influencing the North’s political and military leadership by diplomacy or withholding aid.

The South is blessed with a strong ally in the US, but not one which wants to go to war again on the Korean peninsula. The post-Cheonan US-South Korean naval exercise was motivated to dissuade the North from launching exactly the sort of attack it has today.

If the North can’t be bullied into behaving itself, and chooses to continue poking the South, then the danger is that the South could at some stage put a foot wrong in its own reactions to provocation. While world attentions are fixed on more believable, more modern threats such as terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, cyber security, energy rivalry, etc, etc, any misjudged or mismanaged response by South Korea to the North's provocation could quickly spiral out of control, re-sparking an old war that never quite ended in 1953.

25/11/2010 UPDATE: Media reports South Korean casualties of two marines and two civilians killed, plus an additional eighteen wounded.

26/11/2010 UPDATE: Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un visit site of North Korean artillery positions.


  1. Isn't there a humanitarian crisis going on in NK already?
    The problem, it seems to me, is that SK has to take these attacks until what, exactly?
    They are entirely reliant on a softening on the stance from within the North, something that I guess might happen with the handover to Un.
    It certainly doesn't seem likely that international consensus will ever be reached on intervention, particularly while nobody's got any money to spend on it. (Apart from the Chinese who would be extremely anti)

  2. Interesting now the "Dear Leader" is dead and Kim Jong Un is in charge, whether the son will revert back to this sort of thing, or perhaps the recent announcement about nukes could mark genuine change.