Pyongyang's Temper Tantrum

North Korea’s latest military provocation won’t change Washington or Seoul’s approach to the rogue state.

This week, the North and South Korean navies exchanged fire on the west coast of the Korean peninsula. The North Korean ship reportedly crossed the "northern limit line" (NLL) that serves as the maritime demarcation between North and South Korea, ignored warning shots by the South Korean patrol vessel, and was badly damaged before returning to the North. The incident, coming a week before U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to East Asia, raised tensions on the peninsula and once again focused attention on the North Korean regime.

It is unclear why the North Korean vessel crossed into South Korean waters. On the one hand, it is possible that the North Korean leadership is making a calculated move prior to Obama's trip to Korea. By raising tensions in the region and once again showing that North Korean threat is serious, Kim Jong-il may be hoping to put pressure on the Obama administration to reduce the economic sanctions placed on North Korea through UN resolutions 1874 and 1718. The U.S. special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, is rumored to be visiting North Korea in a few weeks, and it might be hoped that such a skirmish may put the North in a better bargaining position during his visit. This may especially be the case because a brief naval skirmish is not likely to escalate into a major military confrontation.

However, it is just as likely that this incident was unplanned and a result of the fluid nature of naval operations. There is also an ongoing dispute between the North and the South about precisely where the NLL is located, and North Korean ships have crossed the NLL over two dozen times this year alone. Indeed, shooting incidents in the Yellow Sea are-if not common-also not rare. Similar incidents occurred in 1999 and 2002. The North Korean ship was a solitary vessel and did not appear to be part of a concerted pattern, nor were there any previous provocative actions by the North Korean navy, and the ship itself retreated after being fired upon.

Whatever the cause of the North's actions, it is unlikely to significantly change either the American or South Korean approach to the North. There is widespread agreement among all types of analysts in the United States that the current policies are appropriate, and that Washington should not be offering concessions to a North Korea that has obviously violated international norms. While the Obama administration has stated clearly that it is willing to talk directly with Pyongyang, it has also clearly stated that it will not give any concessions to North Korea, nor will it consider removing economic sanctions, until there is clear progress on denuclearization. The North Korean provocations over the past year have solidified this view in Washington, and they appear unlikely to change at this time.

The clash is also unlikely to change the negotiating stance of any of the other regional actors, whether it be Japan, China, or Russia. These countries-like South Korea and the United States-have also offered to engage in discussions with North Korea about its nuclear program, but only in the context of North Korea taking clear steps towards denuclearization.

The reaction of markets through East Asia was also one of relative indifference; while North Korea itself poses a potential threat, low-level military skirmishes have occurred frequently enough in the past that markets appear to have already incorporated the North Korean problem into their valuations.

The larger question is also the more enduring question: is there any possibility of resolving the nuclear crisis? Much will depend on the North Korean leadership, but just as important will be the U.S.-South Korea relationship. For that, President Obama's upcoming trip will offer an important opportunity for the two longtime allies to coordinate their policies and discuss the best path forward.


David C. Kang is Professor of International Relations and Business, and Director of the Korean Studies Institute, at the University of Southern California. His latest book is China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia.