So much for the quiet week on blogging because of Thanksgiving. Yesterday NK started shelling Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea (what Koreans call the West Sea). It’s all over the news of course, but here is a good place to start, particularly on the possibility of a hawkish SK response. Here is a write-up from a more left-leaning Korean newspaper. For a good IR theory take on this, try here. I spoke yesterday on the BBC World Service “Newshour” program about this. Here is the link. My comments begin at 10:10 and conclude at 17:45 (this is ‘chapter 1’ of the listed choices). Here is the podcast (please refer to the download entitled “North and South Korea Exchange Fire 23 Nov 10”).
Here are my thoughts (fuller than my BBC remarks). All the links below connect to my previous posts on NK. Please see them for greater detail which this post summarizes:
1. I am surprised that this has evoked so much concern given that the Cheonan cruiser sinking in March was worse (46 deaths then vs 3 this time). The Cheonan sinking very clearly would entail many deaths, whereas yesterday’s artillery strike was less certain to do that. To my mind, NK is more culpable in the spring than this time, but the rhetoric is more belligerent from the ROKG this time than last. Even though fewer died, this might be explained by a ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’ logic: SK has just had a enough of these sorts of out-of-the-blue strikes (point 3 below), and this time they are going to hit back regardless of the costs. This incident is also somewhat different from past provocations, because it openly is targeting South land territory, and the North Koreans knew that. The other Yellow Sea skirmishes were on the water. Also, there were civilians on the island – and only one firetruck – so it looks perhaps more egregious than attacking a warship. (Although the Cheonan sinking was wholly undeclared and the Yellow Sea islands have been disputed for a long time, so I still find the greater outrage this time confusing.)
2. NK is almost certainly miffed and unhappy at all the global press SK got for the G-20. This is a way to hit back and play the spoiler of SK’s afterglow. NK did something similar in in 1987, when it blew up KAL 858 in order to discourage SK from holding the 1988 Olympics. In both cases, SK regarded the event as a global coming out. In 1998, the Olympics showed that a previously poor underdeveloped country torn apart by war had bounced back through an astonishing economic miracle (2 decades of double-digit GDP growth) and was wealthy and stable enough to hold a major international event. The contrast with brutalized, still poor NK was obvious. In 2010, the G-20 was also regarded in SK as a major coming out for Korea as a big economic player inside the elite G-20. And now, NK is even poorer and worse off than in 1988. The comparison is pretty stark. So my kremlinological guess is that NK is once again showing its displeasure and that it is still a major force on the peninsula.
3. NK has a history of these sorts of provocations against SK. These sorts of things are practically ritualistic now. While these things are disruptive (to say the least), they are not actually unpredictable. In fact, they follow a pretty established pattern of NK brinksmanship though asymmetric outlashings at SK from time to time. These strikes show the North’s unhappiness at something in the South (like the G-20 last week) or to bolster the CV of NK insiders (like Kim Jong-un today) jockeying for influence inside a fairly corrupt regime with pretty murky rules and shallow institutions. Just in the last 12 months, North Korea sank the SK Cheonan cruiser in the Yellow Sea (March 26, 2010) and fought a naval skirmish in the same area (November 10, 2009). There were also skirmishes in the same area in 1999 and 2002. So this stuff is pretty common actually.
4. This probably won’t escalate, because the South Koreans have little appetite for war against NK. The sinking of the Cheonan was a far worse provocation (46 sailors died), but the SK military did nothing, because most South Koreans just want to forget about NK. They don’t want their wealthy comfortable democracy trashed in a war with a ruler they consider a quack. So South Koreans just put up with this stuff. Their tolerance for NK pain is quite high, because the costs of war and reunification are frightening. Also, South Korea’s hands are badly tied by the extreme exposure of SK population centers to NK retaliation. 50% of the SK population lives within in 50 miles of the DMZ, and NK has stationed thousands, perhaps 10-20,000, canon and rockets with striking distance of those cities for the purpose of holding SK hostage. So NK can act out all these provocations with little fear of retaliation. It is just too risky for the South to hit back.
5. Finally, the Kim family transition in the North itself generates huge uncertainty. These kinds of strikes demonstrate the NK military’s relevance to all involved – not just in the South, but also China, whom they don’t want to dominate them, and to the leader-to-be, Kim Jong-un. This sort of thing reminds him who is boss in the regime, or at least, who is a competitor for power.