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WTF, North Korea?

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This is mildly alarming:

North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire on Tuesday after dozens of shells fired from the North struck a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed maritime border, South Korean military officials said. Two South Korean soldiers were killed, 15 were wounded and three civilians were injured, said Kiyheon Kwon, an official at the Defense Ministry. The military went to “crisis status,” and fighter planes were put on alert but did not take off. South Korean artillery units returned fire after the North’s shells struck South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 p.m., said Mr. Kwon, adding that the North also fired numerous rounds into the Yellow Sea. News reports said dozens of houses were on fire, and TV footage showed large plumes of black smoke spiraling from the island.

In and of itself, this would be unfortunate but not particularly indicative of a major increase in tensions or a shift in North Korean policy. Combined with the Cheonan incident, the revelation of the nuke facility, and a number of other small incidents, it’s somewhat disconcerting. My best guess is this: North Korea is taking behavioral cues from the increasingly tense security relationship between China on the one side and the US and Japan on the other side. The North Koreans may believe that these tensions open up a wider space for action because they reduce the chances of collaboration between China and the US. Pyongyang may also believe that Beijing tacitly approves the series of escalations. I have no idea regarding Beijing’s actual attitude; China normally regard North Korea as an embarrassment, but in this case they may appreciate that the DPRK has some utility.

But that’s just guesswork. Thoughts?

…see also Spencer, Sigger, and Stratfor.

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  • What sort of utility do you think China finds in border skirmishes between the two Koreas? Why would China want tensions escalated in this way, and to this degree?

    • Robert Farley

      China could be indicating that it has additional cards to play in Northeast Asia; relaxing reins on North Korea could be a message to the US and Japan to back off on incursions (political or otherwise) into the East China Sea and into disputed island chains.

      But then North Korea could just be approaching this in an entrepreneurial sense, believing that tensions allow greater freedom of action without any implicit or explicit go ahead from Beijing. I really don’t know.

  • David

    Using our Snelling, this is definitely a threat that leaves something to chance. By acquiescing to an escalation of the situation on the peninsula, China becomes more indispensable to US, ROK, and Japan. Moreover, this escalation does not cost China itself anything (unless of course the threat becomes realized, and war does break out) as no one can convincingly accuse China of being behind it.

  • Justaguy

    I don’t know what Beijing proper feels about all this, but an informal survey of Beijingers I talked to in a bar tonight indicates that:
    a) WTF is their general reaction as well.
    b) The desire to put one’s life on the line beating American Imperialists back from the Yalu river has diminished significantly in the past 50 years.

    • timb

      so, the Chinese learned something from the Korean War that we did not….how nice.

      How long until we are just one of their provinces?

      • Justaguy

        Oh, be a little optimistic – we’d make up at least a dozen provinces.

        • NonyNony

          Be more optimistic than that – why hold a conquered territory when you can have it as a client state? You get all the benefits of holding a conquered territory with none of the messy conquest parts.

          So the real question is how long until we’re a client state of China that sends all of our natural resources over for a pittance while they send useless crap back for us to buy to support their economy?

          • dave

            About 2004?

  • I’d be more inclined to make the argument that this is much more related to NorKo domestic politics – ie a spasm related to transfer of power. I don’t think Beijing has a firm enough grasp on any ‘reins’ to actually loosen or tighten them. Moreover this is unlike Cheonan in that it is the kind of highly visible action where its a)immediately apparent what’s going on, b) politically extremely difficult for the South not to forcibly respond.

    Speaking of which, President Lee is now threatening ‘enormous retaliation.’ Gulp.

    • John F

      Notice the link within the link- a compendium of various NoKor incidents over the years…
      A Korean American I used to know insisted that most North Koreans, given how they have lived the past 50-60 years really are functionally insane – how they act or react is based in large part n the “reality” that the regime has forcefed them for 50 years-
      many incidents are not actually specifically “directed” from up on high – rather if you have forcefed ideas and histories into someone since birth- within an echo chamber- and then give that young man a gun or axe- and then he sees the “enemy” in person for maybe the first time in his life- there is no telling what he will do- hell he may ax one to death even if it may restart a major war…

  • I’m fully aware that this is probably a terrible idea, but is some kind of military strike against North Korea in order (strictly from the South without obvious US assistance)? Are they pressing the South to see how far they can go? Again, I’m aware that a military response would likely be disastrous. But throwing out ideas here.

    • ajay

      As noted elsewhere, it’s already happened: the South returned fire with artillery.

      • Right, but I mean a real attack like air strikes to eliminate bombing positions or some such thing.

        • Nathan

          Four batteries, built into caves Iwo Jima or Dienbienphu style, its not the ideal target for an airstrike. Or much of anything else, really.

          • asdfsdf

            Thermobarics could do the trick, but I don’t know if South Korea has those. Still, if they really wanted to the South could destroy *one* complex, no matter how tough it was. They have quite a large air force, after all.

  • wengler

    North Korea probably still adheres to the old Soviet artillery way of war. Therefore, as highly immobile as they are, they wish for the South to make a foray into the North so the DPRK can obliterate a couple battalions to keep the revolution alive.

    This regime is attempting to demonstrate not only power but competence. If they are perceived to be weak on military affairs by their own people their whole system might collapse. Military victory also tends to give shots of confidence to ideological policy.

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  • Tosh

    http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL3E6MN0SQ20101124

    “(Reuters) – A U.S. aircraft carrier group set off for Korean waters on Wednesday, a day after North Korea rained artillery shells on a South Korean island..”

    Ah, the smell of a US carriers off the coast of hostile, two bit foreign belligerents in the morning.
    Nothing could go wrong with that.

  • Kostas

    That is what North Korea says about the latest incident.
    http://wp.me/p11mt3-NI

    Here is an objective view on North Korea.
    http://redkorea.wordpress.com/

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