The Diplomat speaks with Korea analyst L. Gordon Flake about this week’s artillery exchange between North and South Korea.
The shelling by North Korea yesterday of the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong is being described by many as one of the most serious incidents since the end of the Korean War. How much of an escalation would you say yesterday’s exchange of fire marks?
It’s a very serious escalation in what has been a series of provocations. The reason why people are more concerned about this than previous incidents such as ship-to-ship firing or firing out into the open ocean is because artillery shells were directed at an actual military base, resulting in South Korean service members being killed and, perhaps most troubling, civilians being killed. The images that one sees now of burning houses and an island with plumes of smoke rising skyward are alarming to say the least.
In a broader context, of course North Korea disputes the Northern Limit Line, and this dispute could be viewed as an inter-Korean clash. But this is a line that has been in existence for 60 years and South Korea has undertaken military exercises on a very regular basis. So there was clearly a decision on the part of North of Korea to escalate the situation in an extremely troubling way.
I’d also point out a very important contrast between this and what happened with the Cheonan in March. When the Cheonan was sunk, it was done at night and in stormy weather—there was a lot of ambiguity about what had happened and who had done it. As a result, I think the government in South Korea showed a remarkable degree of forbearance in conducting a methodical and international investigation before moving forward, and even then moving forward in a very careful way.
This time, I don’t think President Lee Myung-bak and his administration have that same luxury in that there’s no question about where the artillery shells came from, there’s no question in terms of the impact on the lives of those living on the island and the fact that you now have refugees from the immediate damage. And so there’s going to be tremendous demand for a rather immediate physical response. The challenge, of course, is that they are faced with a North Korea that has threatened an immediate escalation, and so it’s difficult to know how to respond to the damage done to your country and the lives lost and yet not be precipitous.
Is there any indication at all as to why North Korea chose this moment to escalate? Could the succession issue have played any part?
It’s always a dangerous thing to try and put yourself in North Korea’s shoes to try and explain their behaviour. I’m always aware of the fact that there’s an ongoing dialogue on an inter-Korean basis that we’re not always privy to. So on one level, this is an inter-Korean issue on a long-standing dispute and the North Koreans will, and already have, argued that this was an exercise that was firing into North Korean waters.
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