So here we are again with a flood of news on North Korea.
I won’t go into telling the story of the artillery exchanges between North and South Korea since it’s plastered in the news. Instead, I’ll try to put what’s recently happened into context.
First of all, we’ve been here before in the West Sea, some also bloody. But this time, it’s much more serious and provocative. It is a direct attack on South Korean territory resulting in the death and injury of civilians. There seems to be no doubt or differing views that this was a direct “armed attack,” particularly since North Korea took responsibility for it, unlike the March 26 Cheonan incident.
At first, it was unclear whether the attack was technically intentional or if, in the exchanges of fire, some shells happened to land in South Korean territory. The exchange coincided with a routine South Korean maritime drill, and more information was required to determine any linkage. But U.S.-South Korean Defense chiefs have reportedly agreed over a telephone conversation that the attack was “intentional and carefully calculated.” Click “Read more.”
South Korea pledged to “resolutely retaliate” if the North conducts more provocations. President Lee Myung-bak has ordered his military to punish North Korea “through action,” not just words to stop the regime from contemplating more provocations:
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak:
“Reckless attacks on South Korean civilians are not tolerable, especially when South Korea is providing North Korea with humanitarian aid…As for such attacks on civilians, a response beyond the rule of engagement is necessary. Our military should show this through action rather than an administrative response (such as statements or talks)… Given that North Korea maintains an offensive posture, I think the Army, the Navy and the Air Force should unite and retaliate against (the North’s) provocation with multiple-fold firepower… I think enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again.”
South Korean Presidential Office Spokeswoman:
“President Lee instructed (the military) to strike North Korea’s missile base near coastline artillery positions if necessary… if there in any indication of further provocation… Our Navy was conducting a maritime exercise near the western sea border today. North Korea has sent a letter of protest over the drill. We’re examining a possible link between the protest and the artillery attack.”
The latest provocation violates the Korean armistice and multiple agreements between the two Koreas as well as UN Charter Article 2(4) and other non-aggression agreements.
Will war break out? The short answer is: No, because South Korea nor the U.S. will intentionally trigger a war although tensions may easily escalate. South Korea experienced and painfully recovered from a devastating war in 1950, and the US is preoccupied in the Middle East and Afghanistan so it will not want another war in Asia. But we can expect South Korea (with the US) react militarily short of war as we’ve seen after the Cheonan attack. North Korea probably will not be foolish enough to trigger war because it knows too well that the country will instantly be wiped out by the U.S. However, the danger and concern is unintentional consequences – actions that unintentionally trigger military conflict or war, which is why a response, as stern as it should be, should also be crafted and carried out carefully.
UN response? It is unclear whether the issue will be taken up at the UN Security Council, although the Council’s President has reportedly expressed the need for an emergency meeting. But the Council may wait until the South Korean government has decided on its course of action, and perhaps even wait until the two Korean militaries attempt to address the incident. South Korea can always report it to the UNSC since it clearly violates UN Charter Article 2 Paragraph 4. In this case, it can also be expected that North Korea could claim “self-defense” and point to the South Korean military exercise.
How does this affect nuclear negotiations? It certainly makes matters more difficult and complicated. North Korea has typically used provocations to turn crises into opportunities (dialogue). However, U.S. officials have made it clear that Washington will not be forced into negotiations. Such comments make it unclear whether the U.S. will try to engage North Korea once again. South Korea, having experienced the fatal attack on its ship The Cheonan, will unlikely extend an olive branch at this time.
North Korea, which blames South Korea for the day’s artillery exchange, can point to the bloody attack and say “See? This is why we need a peace treaty!” Pyongyang has incessantly demanded the armistice be turned into a peace treaty, in an apparent attempt to shift the focus away from denuclearization and to gain recognition as Washington’s negotiating partner on equal footing.
Where do we go from here? First, tensions need to be relieved and the latest attack needs to be dealt with.
This attack does not seem to be linked with latest findings of a North Korean light-water reactor and enrichment facility, but as for future nuclear negotiations, the short answer is: engagement. Dialogue must resume soon at an opportune time. History has shown that when North Korea is engaged in dialogue, it refrains from provocative actions. (See elboration in next post)