Let’s get one thing out of the way. North Korea is not crazy.
The leadership is a lot of things. Mass murderers, gangsters, terrorists and con artists come to mind. Crazy they are not.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a different kind of place by design.
The state operates in an alternative universe in which engaging in shootouts on the high seas, bombarding islands and torpedoing ships—all meant as gestures—make some kind of weird sense.
Everything Pyongyang does, it does for a reason. That includes the occasional killings of foreign sailors and marines.
What follows isn’t a comprehensive account, but it’s the story of North Korea’s deadliest recent attacks, and the curious events that might have triggered Pyongyang into risking all-out war.
The First Battle of Yeonpyeong:
It began with bumping. It ended with shooting. On June 8, 1999, seven North Korean gunboats repeatedly crossed the two countries’ sea boundary near Yeonpyeong Island.
Seoul sent 16 patrol boats to eject the North Koreans, but the tiny flotilla initially pulled back to avoid a confrontation.
The next day, the incident escalated into physical bumping between the two sides, as South Korean ships attempted to forcefully push the North Korean vessels back across the border. This damaged four North Korean ships, two of them seriously, while three South Korean ships took damage.
On June 15, the shooting began. The day started with more bumping between North and South Korean patrol vessels. Suddenly, one North Korean gunboat, PT-381, found itself double-teamed by two South Korean warships. PT-381 opened fire with its machine guns and 25-millimeter cannon.
The larger, better-armed South Korean ships returned fire with a 76-millimeter Oto Melara cannon, 40-millimeter No Bong dual-purpose guns and 20-millimeter Gatling guns, the same gun installed on U.S. Navy ships.
Heavily outgunned, the North Korean sailors paid dearly for striking first. The South Korean ships sank one North Korean torpedo boat and damaged five others, including a 420-ton patrol ship. At least 30 North Korean sailors died.
The shootout damaged five South Korean ships. Nine sailors suffered injuries.
What triggered the attack? A difference of opinion on where the sea boundary between North and South Korea actually lay. Decades before the battle, Washington and Seoul jointly agreed on the Northern Limit Line—a sea border between North and South on the west coast of the Korean peninsula. The NLL extends three miles from the North Korean coastline.
North Korea recognizes a line much farther south in which five islands inhabited by southerners, including Yeonpyeong, are within its territorial waters.
Neither the U.S. nor South Korea consulted North Korea when drawing up the NLL, and Pyongyang has been unhappy about it ever since. In 1999, it began pushing its sea boundary claim, with violence as its method. North Korean patrol vessels and fishing boats began making forays south of the NLL. A clash was inevitable.
The Second Battle of Yeonpyeong:
The North Korean military doesn’t forget its losses—it learns from them and finds ways to strike back.
On June 29, 2002, two North Korean patrol boats crossed the Northern Limit Line and opened fire on two Chamsuri-class South Korean patrol boats. One of the DPRK boats, armed with an 85-millimeter deck gun, opened fire at a distance of 500 yards.
The South Koreans, outgunned this time, returned fire with 20-millimeter and 30-millimeter cannons. The two boats fought for their lives, many of the crew on PKM-357 badly wounded from a direct 85-millimeter hit to the ship’s cabin. Within minutes, two South Korean Pohang-class corvettes arrived to turn the tide of battle, and the North Korean ships withdrew.
Patrol boat PKM-357 succumbed to damage and sank. South Korean casualties amounted to six killed and 18 wounded. The navy alleged the North Korean patrol boat 684 caught fire and may have sank, with 13 sailors killed and 25 wounded.
For its part, the North Korean navy denied any of casualties or damage to its own forces.
Pyongyang carried out a premeditated ambush at sea. But why would the regime risk a major war?
At the time of the attack, South Korea was co-hosting the 2002 FIFA World Cup. It was yet another confirmation of South Korea’s status as a developed nation, a recognition of how far the country had come in the 49 years since the end of the Korean War.
Pyongyang hates it when Seoul looks good internationally. If it can, the regime often plans provocations in such a way to steal the limelight or embarrass its southern neighbor.
The second battle of Yeonpyeong was no different. Handing South Korea a defeat—during the World Cup no less—would show the world who the stronger Korea was. That’s at least how North Korean officials would see it, if they were the rest of the world.