Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2010.12.10

Shelling by North Korea

On November 23, 2010, North Korea launched artillery shells on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, igniting international concern that this act may lead to a major military conflict between the two Koreas. Most reports emphasize that this was the first time since 1953 that the North had attacked South Korea on land, but I cannot help but notice similarities with past incidents initiated by the North.

It is frequently stated that the South and the North are divided at the 38 parallel; however, the actual border lies not horizontal but heads southward on land, while the border heads northward at sea, stretching towards the northwest. North Korea insists that the Northern Limit Line (NLL) at sea lies further south. This dispute as to the border at sea has led to numerous conflicts around the NLL, such as the sinking of the South Korean patrol boat in March and the recent shelling of Yeonpyeong.

The circumstances as to who bears the blame for both of these incidents are unclear. It can be argued that there is no doubt that the North launched artillery shells but the North repeatedly had claimed that the South provoked it. The North's argument is that it had demanded that the South stop military exercises in the area and that the South was provocative by not heeding it, which resulted in their shelling.

The circumstances surrounding the sinking of the South Korean patrol boat were even more unclear. No one saw what happened at sea. The international investigation ultimately concluded that a North Korean torpedo was to blame, but that conclusion has not been universally accepted. Even South Korea seems uncertain of this conclusion. Japanese papers report this incident as the "sinking of a patrol boat," implying that the boat sank due to some cause; this characterization of the incident seems to be the one that is most generally accepted.

What kind of advantages does the North reap from the recent shelling? Leaving aside domestic factors, such as the anointing of Kim Jong Un as the successor to Kim Jong Il and the regime's efforts to distract its citizens from economic hardship, from the perspective of foreign policy, the regime's purposes seem clear.

Its aim seems to be to impress upon the international community that, unless there is an end to the 1953 armistice and a peace treaty is concluded, the peninsula will never be stable. Once a peace treaty is concluded, North Korea will have secured its position in the international arena, and the regime itself can be secured-its most important goal. The shelling incident seems to be a part of the North's plan to achieve the greater goal of concluding a peace treaty and securing its national security.

If North Korea carries these incidents too far, it will face criticism from the international community to its detriment. The North seems to think, though, that, as long as it incites incidents in conflict zones, where it cannot be held responsible with certainty, criticism will be merely temporary.

In terms of concluding a peace treaty, not only the North's relations with South Korea, but also those with the United States are even more crucial. The shelling incident will not cause the U.S. to view the North favorably. Although the North may hope for a peace treaty, the incident had decidedly negative effects, making it even more difficult to conclude a peace treaty. The North, however, must have anticipated this.

North Korea may have hoped for an improvement in its bilateral relations with the U.S. once President Obama took office. It is now obvious that it is not simply disappointed but frustrated by the Obama administration's policy towards the North. So, the North appears to be thinking that the shelling of Yeonpyeong while emphasizing that the peace treaty is indispensable to the stability of the peninsula, serves to demonstrate that current U.S. policy does not lend itself to resolving the problem of the Korean peninsula. The North seems to have made the same calculation with respect to the sinking incident. It probably was not coincidence that, at the time of the shelling, Stephen Bosworth, Special Representative for North Korea policy, was in Beijing to discuss reviving the six-party talks.

The United States, as South Korea's ally, immediately criticized North Korea shelling of Yeonpyeong and expressed full support for the South, sending the aircraft carrier George Washington from Yokosuka to the Yellow Sea for the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercise. North Korea must have calculated that China will not welcome the U.S. moves to send the carrier into China's front yard, that, eventually, the U.S. will have to listen to China, and that the U.S. will not be able to maintain its hard line position towards North Korea. One cannot forget that North Korea's brinksmanship diplomacy is backed by its distinctive mid- to long-term vision.