Features | Security | East Asia

North Korea’s Dangerous Escalation

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.

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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.

But the fact is that this was a South Korean military exercise like the ones conducted in August and September; there was firing by the South Korean military, but into the open ocean. North Korea itself has had periods where it has fired into the open ocean as well and warned ships to stay out of the area. But that is a very different thing from targeting a specific base and places of residence. So that’s why this is considered so much of an escalation.

In terms of a specific justification this time around, it’s hard to see one. In my more conspiratorial moments I would tie it to the announcement that North Korea has a highly-enriched uranium development programme, and the fact that the United States is just gearing up an international response and co-ordinating with its allies South Korea and Japan and also with the Chinese and the Russians to make clear in the United Nations that developing a highly-enriched uranium programme is a clear violation of standing UN Security Council resolutions. So, by just days later provoking a confrontation, this could be seen as a diversionary tactic, to divert the attention of the world away from the enrichment programme and at the same time giving a clear warning that North Korea is a very dangerous place.

Is it tied to the succession? It’s a compelling narrative to say that the North Koreans are trying to build up the military credentials of Kim Jong-un. That narrative makes some sense, but at the same time, in great contrast to the early 1980s when Kim Jong-il step by step took power from his father, I think it’s notable that as of the party congress, Kim Jong-il hasn’t given up any power—he’s maintained all his posts. And while he has given his son some very honorific titles, I’ve yet to see any real responsibilities being given to Kim Jong-un or him taking responsibilities himself. So it may well be that this incident is being used to burnish his credentials domestically, although I don’t see this as having actually been initiated by Kim Jong-un. That said, this is a very opaque system, so it’s hard to say.

What options does South Korea realistically have to respond?

The challenge is this: South Korea needs to respond in a manner that makes clear the gravity of North Korea’s actions and to ensure there’s some type of deterrent effect in the response. It could be argued that the failure to do that in response to the sinking of the Cheonan in the spring essentially encouraged this further provocation. And, as you can imagine, the focus is also going to be on China, which made a decision to double down on Kim Jong-il, a decision you could argue has actually enabled bad behaviour.

My best guess is that there’s going to have to be some kind of strike on the artillery positions that are directly responsible for the shelling of the island and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a missile strike or air attack on these facilities. Anything that goes beyond that however could be perceived to be a South Korean provocation. It’s a very difficult balance made all the more difficult by the fact that the North Koreans are pretty expert at brinksmanship. They’ve also already made clear that if South Korea crosses the Northern Limit Line by one-one hundredth of a millimetre, that they’ll respond with all powers of thunder and lightning to destroy South Korea.

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You talked there about China, and both the US over the weekend and now Australia have said they hope China will put some pressure on North Korea. Do you expect this to happen and how much leverage do the Chinese have?

Again, while the North Korean artillery barrage is a very serious action which in and of itself merits a robust response, the Yeonpyeong attack is also possibly a diversionary tactic which could complicate important efforts to generate a co-ordinated international response to recent revelations regarding North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme. So primary attention and pressure must be directed at China, which can be seen as an enabler of such North Korean behaviour.

In refusing to hold North Korea accountable for the Cheonan incident, China tacitly encourages provocations such as the Yeonpyeong attack and the development of a uranium enrichment programme. Rather than waste time on a new UNSC Resolution, the US and its allies should work to make it immediately clear that the uranium enrichment programme is a direct violation of existing UNSCR 1874 and pressure Russia and China to vigorously implement this and other already existing resolutions.

Likewise, there needs to be clear and unanimous condemnation of this most recent provocation by the Security Council. Beijing made a decision to double down on its bet on its ability to moderate North Korean behaviour when it decided to host Kim Jong-il not once, but twice—even in the shadow of the Cheonan tragedy. As such, the onus to explain and respond to this most recent North Korean provocation is primarily upon China.

That said, there remains some question as to how much influence China has in Pyongyang. Up until the attack on Yeonpyeong, they were being lauded for moderating North Korean behaviour following the Cheonan incident. China’s decision to support UNSCR 1874 is considered to be at least partially responsible for North Korea’s hesitance to launch another long-range missile or to conduct another nuclear test. However, with this week’s provocations, the limits of Beijing’s influence have been exposed and the key question is now how China will respond.

You also talked about the revealing of the enrichment programme reported over the weekend. Did this take the US by surprise and why were US observers allowed in now?

The public revealing of North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme was certainly far more of a surprise in Beijing and Moscow than it was in Washington. The US Government has been warning of North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme and related procurement activities for over eight years, and even in the months and weeks leading up to this weekend’s dramatic revealing of an apparently fully operational enrichment facility at Yongbyon complete with six cascades and approximately 2000 centrifuges, US officials have been raising the issue with their counterparts in China and Russia.

On April 15, 2009, North Korea officially declared its intent to develop its own Light Water Nuclear Reactor programme and is now likely hoping that the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon will be seen as a peaceful facility intended to produce fuel for the small 30MW LWR currently under construction. However, not only is any type of enrichment programme a clear and obvious violation of the September 2005 joint statement of the Six-Party Talks, but it’s also a clear violation of UNSCR 1874, which ‘decides that the DPRK shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner and immediately cease all related activities.’

 

L. Gordon Flake is executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington and co-editor of 'New Political Realities in Seoul: Working toward a Common Approach to Strengthen U.S.-Korean Relations.'