The North Flank Guard: A Military Exercise Escalated into Artillery Exchange

This is the second of a three part series. Read the first posting here.

On November 28, a South Korean artilleryman mistakenly fired a single 155mm shell north into the Demilitarized Zone during a drill. Although the defense ministry notified its counterparts in North Korea of the mistake some two hours after the incident, it was all too late. North Korean artillery forces, fearing that the attack was the prelude to a full scale invasion, responded by firing over a hundred shells into the south, pounding a South Korean military base but also a nearby village community, resulting in four deaths, including two civilians.

This is how a military exercise can escalate into an artillery exchange. It reveals the dangers of having two bitter opponents, armed and opposing each other on opposite sides of a thin stretch of land with nothing but a fragile armistice preventing the continuation of a war that still awaits its peace treaty. While each side must keep their front line forces prepared for an outbreak in hostilities by means of military exercises, even the smallest mistake like this can result in tragedy.

Of course, this is not what happened. There was an artillery shell mistakenly fired into the demilitarized zone on November 28, and it did reportedly take two hours for the North to be informed of the mistake, but this is not the incident that recently resulted in a deadly North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean military base and a nearby village.

Instead, the island of Yeonpyeong, one of a small collection of islands which hug the North Korean coast but which, under the terms of the 1953 armistice, remain under South Korean control, came under artillery attack from the North on November 23, in the first such incident since the end of major hostilities over fifty years ago. Four people died, many were injured, and an entire community was evacuated while the village on this heavily militarized island shared the fate of the nearby bases.

That morning South Korean forces had conducted an artillery training drill but no shells struck on or near North Korean shores before the North launched its attack. Southern forces shot their shells to the southwest, in order to avoid crossing the Northern Limit Line (NLL) which has, rightly or wrongly, served as the maritime border between the two sides for decades.1 Nor was this exercise some irregular or sudden move to threaten the North, being part of a monthly drill not associated with any larger joint US-Korean military exercises. That morning North Korean forces demanded a halt to the drill, but this too was anything but new. North Korean forces regularly demand a halt to such exercises in the South, including those in the contested maritime territory around the NLL.

As far as I can tell, we are left with a picture of a morning that was business as usual: North Korea protesting South Korean drills, whether or not those are connected to the larger joint exercises, North Korea contesting the Northern Limit Line, and South Korean forces conducting their monthly drills, firing to the southwest into the sea, an act that North Koreans nearby have surely seen them do many times before. Is there a casus belli here? I fail to see it. At the very least (and I still don’t think this would be enough), the North would need to offer some clear and public indication that they will no longer tolerate any further artillery fire into the contested seas and that further exercises will result in a military response. The problem, of course, is that it is difficult for the North to make any such warning credible when they threaten not just military force, but the complete destruction of its enemies on a fairly regular basis. Even if North Korea was trying to make a unique and credible threat in its messages on November 23, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate that North Korea must itself take responsibility for.

So how has the North Flank Guard responded to this incident? Let me offer two examples: The statement recently issued by the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea2 and the Factsheet: West Sea Crisis In Korea by Nan Kim, posted with an introduction by John McGlynn at Japan Focus and also available as a PDF directly from the National Campaign to End the Korean War.

North Korea, the ‘Reacter’

The ASCK statement on the Yeonpyeong incident describes the events I outlined above in the following way, and I have bolded some phrases for emphasis:

Last week, a joint U.S-South Korean military exercise escalated into artillery exchange between the two Koreas. North Korea’s artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island killed four and wounded many more. South Korea’s response left an as-yet unknown number of casualties in the North. Now the United States and South Korea have begun joint war games in the Yellow Sea. U.S. forces include the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit based in Okinawa, the 7th Air Force stationed in Osan, and the aircraft carrier USS George Washington based in Yokosuka. U.S. and South Korean marines will stage a combined amphibious landing exercise on the west coast of Korea.

These massive military maneuvers are escalating tensions and threaten to trigger general armed conflict. We appeal to all sides to desist immediately from warlike actions and stop this cycle of ever-increasing threats and shows of force. All parties must back down before sparking a conflict that would threaten millions of lives.

Filled with military detail from the Southern response, there is here a causal link established between the US-Korean exercises that coincided with the monthly drill on Yeonpyeong and the North Korean attack, but even more an emphasis on the response to the North Korean attack. Like so many other ASCK statements, some of which I have referred to in a previous posting on the organization, there is some fascinating sentence structure at work that is designed to avoid an explicit claim: an exercise escalated into an exchange. All by itself, apparently. A more honest rendering of this sentence would have been, “South Koreans provoked a North Korean attack with their frightening military exercises,” but the authors of this statement have decided to pull slightly away from this with a softer construction, allowing the surrounding sentences to provide the punch. The next paragraph, while calling for all parties to back down, begins again with an emphasis on the “massive military maneuvers” on the part of US and South Korea. Nowhere in this opening is North Korea’s attack explicitly denounced. The statement does eventually denounce the attack, but only buried in the middle of a later paragraph that hands out blame to everyone in equal measure.

In the following section, providing “background” to the “rapid military escalation” there are eleven sentences, of which only three address North Korea as an actor: one stating the fact that the North shelled the island, one on the casualties this caused, and one on the threat by the North to launch further attacks. Overwhelmingly the emphasis in this section is once again on depicting the annual military exercises “amidst” which this attack occurred, speculation that the return fire could have created even higher destruction in the North, and on the response of the US and South Korea following the attack.

None of the “background” concedes the possibility that North Korea might have had any other motivation in launching the attack other than as a reaction to the drill itself or the joint exercises going on around the same time. I cannot bring myself to believe that the distinguished scholars who have backed this statement can all truly believe this. If many critics demonize the North Korean regime, the North Flank Guard infantilizes it. The narrative provided belittles the strategic thinking that must be at work within the North Korean regime and the preparation and thought that must have gone into an attack like this. We may not fully understand the logic behind the attack, for obvious reasons, but let us at least appreciate that North Korea has made a calculation, and North Korea has decided to act under circumstances and time of its choosing: not react like some scared and cornered prey.

The Factsheet by Nan Kim is also completely dominated by a discussion of the South Korean and US military actions, like the ASCK statement only using statistics when wanting to impress the reader with the military might being exhibited by the South. No mention in either the Factsheet or the ASCK statement is made of the fact the drill was a monthly affair (Nan Kim helpfully added this in the comments in response to a bewildered reader) or that North Korea regularly protests exercises conducted in the South. These facts are central to interpreting this event in the context of an exercise of force as part of a language of diplomacy. The narrative in these texts depicts action (threatening US-South Korean exercises, island drills) and reaction (North Korean attack), “North Korean artillery units responded by firing on a South Korean artillery base on Yeonpyeong Island.” It is a narrative of the US and ROK as the ‘deciders’ and the North as a ‘reacter,’ without any consideration of possible reasons why North Korea might rise above the “chatter” of regular interactions to commit an unprecedented attack on the territory of the South.

Negotiations and Negative Reinforcement

I share with the ASCK and the Factsheet the conviction that negotiation is the only genuine way forward to defusing tensions on the peninsula. The use of force, even in a series of carefully controlled escalations between each side, carries with it too many risks and there is every indication that North Korea is always willing to carry this farther than the US and South Korea are. Like the ASCK, I am concerned that the change in the rules of engagement after the incident to allow an asymmetrical response will facilitate future escalation, though I believe the new joint US-South Korea exercises that followed the incident are an inevitable result; a minimum response by the South to show it is committed to defense against further attacks.

Without some sudden collapse of the regime in the North, a long awaited eventuality that has been predicted to be around the corner for decades but completely beyond the ability of external powers to bring about under any realistic conditions, this is truly the only way forward. However, we must also recognize that the attack on Yeonpyeong has made this more, not less difficult to achieve. With a hawkish conservative in power (and far more hawkish conservatives demanding blood from outside the Blue House), there is huge pressure to resist negative reinforcement: North Korea wants immediate negotiations resulting in further aid and other concessions, in addition to any possible domestic motivations behind the recent attack, it also presumably believes an escalation of violence will force a more rapid return to negotiations that will primarily benefit itself.

This has worked time and time again on previous occasions, without North Korea ever having to give up its golden egg (nuclear weapons). There is a serious danger in continuing to allow North Korea to use military provocations as its default tool for achieving its national aims. This not only threatens peace on the peninsula, but will be a message heard by powers around the world.

The question then, is how can the US and South Korea move forward on negotiation without contributing to a form of geopolitical moral hazard? While most other commentators on North Korea, including those who agree negotiation will ultimately be the only way to resolution, recognize this core dilemma, it is completely absent from the Factsheet, or statements of the ASCK.

The third part in this series:

The North Flank Guard: Everyday Life in North Korea

  1. The Northern Limit Line, established unilaterally by the United Nations Command in 1953, without consultation with North Korea, cuts to the north of the islands left in South Korean control. While it aimed originally to prevent southern ships from going north and serves a useful security purpose to protect the islands, North Korea has contested the line since the 1970s. It also violates the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention provisions for a 12 nautical mile coastal limit. The maintenance of the line is an important part of the unfair economic environment for northern fisherman in the area, as well as blocking direct egress of ships from the North Korean coast there. The North Koreans claim a line much farther to the south, the acceptance of which would surround South Korean islands, barring a small corridor, with North Korean military waters, an untenable arrangement. I’m very much in favor of adjustments in the line, fair coastal access for North Korea, and a fair division of the economic bounty of the region, all to be accomplished through negotiations between North and South Korea, but the reality today is that the security tensions in the region, and the fact that the region around the NLL has become a graveyard for those who died in so many conflicts in the waters will make it difficult or not impossible to make any changes while tensions are so high. The more blood is spilled in the region, the more each side will harden their views. For helpful background see John Barry Kotch and Michael Abbey “Ending Naval Clashes on the Northern Limit Line and the Quest for a West Sea Peace Regime” Asian Perspective 27.2 (2003).  

  2. They do not give the statement a separate page so I unfortunately cannot offer a permanent link to it.  

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