On August 10 a brief firefight broke out between North and South Korea in the West (Yellow) Sea. The initial South Korean news-agency report was hedged:
South Korea fired three shots towards the tense western sea border after one North Korean shell apparently fell near there, the military here said. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the South's Navy heard North Korea fire three artillery shots toward the Northern Limit Line (NLL) around 1 p.m. and then responded around 2 p.m. with three warning shots. ‘We estimated that one North Korean shell dropped near the NLL,’ a JCS official said. “We haven’t noticed any particular movements in the North Korean military but we’re maintaining a defense posture."
It is not clear if any of the original rounds fell south of the NLL or where South Korea’s shots fell. A few more rounds were exchanged later in the day. Washington and Seoul were quick to accuse North Korea of a provocation. An annual joint U.S.-South Korean exercise to begin this week was scarcely mentioned.
Accusations of North Korean provocations ignore the precarious military balance in Korea and the parlous political context on the peninsula at this time.
North Korea’s armed forces are inferior to South Korea’s—on land, in the air and at sea. Although a North Korean surprise attack cannot be ruled out, the allies are confident they would defeat it decisively. Any use of nuclear arms by the North would be nothing short of suicidal. For its part, Pyongyang can credibly threaten devastation of much of Seoul within range of its artillery and short-range missiles, which should suffice to deter an attack by South Korea. In short, mutual deterrence makes the likelihood of deliberate aggression on the peninsula quite low. Yet the very steps that each side has taken to deter premeditated war have increased the risk of deadly clashes, if not inadvertent war.
Politically, the current tension dates back to 2008, after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak backed away from a potentially far-reaching summit agreement signed by his predecessor with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il that included a pledge “to discuss ways of designating a joint fishing area in the West Sea to avoid accidental clashes and turning it into a peace area and also to discuss measures to build military confidence.” Determined to display toughness toward North Korea, Lee also abandoned engagement and prevailed on Washington to do likewise. Disengagement by Washington and Seoul has never gone down well in Pyongyang. The most dangerous crises have come when Seoul blocked engagement between Washington and Pyongyang. Even worse, with transition to a new generation of leadership under way in Pyongyang, loose talk about impending collapse of the North Korean regime was ominously rife in Seoul.
Lee’s renege drew a bristling response from Pyongyang. In late March 2008, after building up its shore artillery near the West Sea, it accused South Korean vessels of violating “its” territory and launched short-range missiles into the disputed waters, underscoring the risks of leaving the issue unresolved. It also called for a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement, a step that the Lee government was loath to take.
The waters off Korea’s west coast have been troubled ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953, when the U.S. Navy unilaterally imposed a ceasefire line at sea north of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) on land. North Korea has long objected to this Northern Limit Line, which is not recognized internationally either. It wants the MDL line extended out to sea.
A heated war of words erupted in 2009. On January 17, assailing South Korea’s defense minister “for making full preparations for the possible third West Sea skirmish,” a North Korean military spokesman warned, “[W]e will preserve … the extension of [the] MDL in the West Sea already proclaimed to the world as long as there are ceaseless intrusions into the territorial waters of our side in the West Sea.” Not to be outmuscled, South Korea’s defense minister told the National Assembly a month later that it “will clearly respond to any preemptive artillery or missile attack by North Korea” in the contested waters.
To navies on both sides, the message was shoot first and ask questions later.
In August 2009 Pyongyang reached out to reengage with Seoul. Kim Jong-Il sent his two top aides dealing with North-South relations to Seoul for Kim Dae-jung’s funeral with a personal invitation for Lee to a third North-South summit meeting. But Lee, mistaking the gesture as a sign of weakness, spurned the invitation.
With little to show for his efforts to reengage, Kim Jong-il turned up the heat. On October 15 the North Korean Navy accused the South of sending sixteen warships into the contested waters, according to a report by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, which said, “The reckless military provocations by warships of the South Korean Navy have created such a serious situation that a naval clash may break out between the two sides in these waters.”
On November 9, 2009, just such a clash took place—precisely what the 2007 summit accord had sought to forestall. After a North Korean patrol boat crossed the NLL, a South Korean naval vessel fired warning shots at it. The North Koreans returned fire and the South Koreans opened up, severely damaging the North Korean ship and causing an unknown number of casualties, including at least one death. What prompted the North Korea patrol boat to respond to the warning shots? Did the crew believe it was under attack?