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.
- 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). [↩]
- They do not give the statement a separate page so I unfortunately cannot offer a permanent link to it. [↩]