South Hwanghae Province
By Son Won-je, Staff Writer
North Korea’s artillery attack Tuesday on Yeonpyeong Island was a high-intensity military provocation without precedent since the armistice that ended the Korean War. Unlike previous military clashes over the year, private South Korean homes and civilians were subjected to an indiscriminate attack.
For the time being, North Korea is using South Korea’s military defense exercises as its rationale for the attack. On Tuesday morning, Pyongyang sent a message to South Korea criticizing the exercises as “effectively an attack on North Korea.”
The Hoguk Exercise in question involve 70 thousand South Korean armed forces troops, 600 tracked vehicles, 90 helicopters, 50 warships, and 500 aircraft. The U.S. military is contributing the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and 7th Air Force to the land and air training exercises, respectively. Pyongyang regards the exercises as training for an attack on North Korea, citing the fact that it is a large-scale joint South Korea-U.S. exercise encompassing naval fleets, air forces, and land exercises.
A former [South Korean] Navy admiral with experience as a squadron leader around the West Sea Northern Limit Line (NLL) said that Yeonpyeong Island “was probably chosen as the site for the attack because it is closest to the North Korea coast, allowing for easy firing and high precision.”
The former admiral added, “Given that civilian homes were also targeted, it is too deliberate to be viewed simply as a response to the defense exercises.”
Analysts have suggested that the different form of military behavior seen this time stemmed from an urgent situation within North Korea.
Korea National Defense University Professor Kim Yeon-su said, “There is a possibility that the reason North Korea has shown this pattern of provocation, ratcheting up the crisis index on the Korean Peninsula, has to do with some problem that arose in the establishment process for the leadership succession system.”
In other words, North Korea may have sensed a need to deal a high-intensity international and domestic shock in order to surmount the immense challenges presented in the succession system establishment process.
Observers predict that this attack will have the effect of increasing solidarity behind the Kim Jong-un system, which emphasizes songun, military first, domestic policy. This analysis suggests that North Korea may have been attempting to foment the belief that amid a situation of military confrontation with South Korea, there is no alternative to a response centered on the Kim Jong-un succession system, which has inherited Kim Jong-il’s songun policy.
Another possibility mentioned by analysts is that the attack was ultimately intended to promote and strengthen Kim Jong-un’s leadership by effecting changes in Washington and Seoul’s North Korea policy through hardline military measures.
The prevailing analysis is that the decision to wage an attack on the area near the West Sea NLL, coming on the heels of the sudden disclosure of a uranium enrichment facility recently to a U.S. expert visiting North Korea, carried the political message of “highlighting the seriousness of the political situation on the peninsula.”
An expert who requested anonymity said, “North Korea’s recent actions may in some respects be aimed at forming an environment favorable for negotiations in the long term, but at least in the short term they strongly suggest a show of force to indicate that Pyongyang is not going to be dwelling on negotiations.”
Another possibility mentioned by observers was that the move was based on the calculation that if North Korea ratcheted up the peninsula’s crisis index, the United States would inevitably be compelled to pursue negotiations with Pyongyang in order to manage the situation. In spite of North Korea’s recent “dialogue offensive,” Seoul has maintained the position that the resumption of large-scale aid and Mt. Kumgang tourism is an impossibility.
“Since the recent conciliation offensive spearheaded by the United Front Department did not work out, it may be the case that North Korea is trying to spark conflict within South Korea by using shock treatment methods to shake up South Korean society, thus pressuring Seoul into taking part in dialogue,” said an expert at one state-run think tank.
With this latest incident, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has plunged into a murky crisis where it is impossible to see what lies ahead. While the sudden revelation of North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility is likely to have more of a negative impact on the Northeast Asia situation in general than on inter-Korean relations, Tuesday’s artillery battle around Yeonpyeong Island is a major disaster that will deal a fatal blow to already strained inter-Korean relations. Depending on the way in which the situation unfolds, it could go beyond this to have a major impact on the political situation surrounding the peninsula.
For the time being, inter-Korean relations appear fated to deteriorate to a worst-case scenario, at least in the short term. Inter-Korean meetings and dialogue, including the on-and-off separated family reunion events and Red Cross talks, are hanging by a thread.
The problem is that the driving force for stability in the Korean Peninsula situation is unlikely to emerge from inter-Korean relations, given the current deteriorated state of relations between South and North Korean authorities. For this reason, attention is focusing the response from Washington and Beijing.
“For the Obama administration in the U.S., it is no longer possible to maintain the ‘strategic patience’ policy toward North Korea,” said Inje University Professor Kim Yeon-chul. “We have to present some kind of countermeasures, and the direction Washington takes in its response is key.”
An expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity noted, “Beijing has expressed its displeasure with the Lee Myung-bak administration’s North Korea policy and its strategy of one-sided focus on the U.S.”
The expert went on to say, “We will have to wait to see how actively China responds.”
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