Tension between North and South Korea is growing after an exchange of fire in the West Sea yesterday near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) around Baekryeong Island.
Following the firing of some 30 shells from North Korean coastal batteries on Wednesday morning, South Korea responded with around 100 warning shells of their own.
North Korea’s General Staff later released a report calling its actions “annual military training.”
North Korea’s action follows the declaration of a prohibited area for shipping in the vicinity of Baekryeong and Daecheong islands along the NLL from January 25th to 29th.
While North Korea’s often uses the area around the disputed NLL to heighten military, and thus political, tension, and it is in this area that past naval battles have occurred, this is the first time North Korea has fired its coastal batteries.
The credibility of the North Korean General Staff’s claim that it is an “annual military training” exercise is thus questionable.
It has been pointed out that the North Korean shelling seems closely related to South Korea’s newly-revealed contingency plan for sudden changes in North Korea, which earned threats of a “sacred war of retaliation” in an official statement from North Korea’s National Defense Commission.
Other analyses view this military action as a tactic to improve North Korea’s influence in the Six-Party Talks and as a way for the North to emphasize the need for a peace treaty.
North Korea experts in Seoul say that North Korea’s recent lack of control over South Korea-U.S relations has probably led to this display of discontent, a measure to gain bargaining power, rather like a baby throwing its toys out of the pram because it is being ignored.
Professor Yu Ho Yeol of Korea University believes North Korea started this process with the Daecheong naval battle (on November 10th, 2009), and that Pyongyang’s final aim is to conclude a peace treaty which changes the NLL.
Professor Yu elaborated, “North Korea must have concluded that their stance is currently not being accepted by South Korea, the U.S. or the international community, and that it has failed to receive enough attention from the international community overall.”
However, Professor Yu believes that North Korea’s threats against the South will enable it to conclude that it has created a more intense situation, and so later threats won’t expand to include additional provocations.
Kim Yeon su of the National Defense University agreed, asserting, “With limited ways to negotiate, military actions that cause tension are a traditional means by which the North can obtain what it wants. Eventually the North will lessen the tension and try to create a bargaining situation.”
Professor Kim’s explanation implies that North Korea needed to make a scene because the South has not responded as Pyongyang expected and the U.S. has continually focused on the return of North Korea to the Six-Party Talks.
Professor Kim also pointed out that this military activity is useful to the North as a means of creating domestic tension for traditional purposes of cementing internal solidarity.
Professor Kim explained, “Food distribution in North Korea is now insufficient and the currency redenomination has stopped necessities getting to the citizens,” so “the North might have concluded that, with the spring lean season approaching, the situation could spark rebellion among the citizens.”
“Given the economic situation in North Korea,” he went on, “not only the citizens but even the army must have been influenced somehow,” suggesting that “the increasing number of Kim Jong Il’s on-site inspections must have some relation to the nation’s condition.”
Although North Korea claims it is preparing for the post Kim Jong Il era and aiming to improve the lives of its citizens, the situation makes it difficult to achieve much. Thus, North Korea might have to try and overcome internal crises by creating external crises in the future as well.
Vis a vis attempts to create domestic tension, North Korea is also currently engaged in an unusually lengthy winter military training season.