Update: Since I submitted my article to KPI and ZNET it has come to light that two South Korean civilians, in addition to two soldiers, were killed by the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last Tuesday. Further escalation of tensions in the West Sea, particularly U.S.-South Korean war exercises starting today can only place more lives in harm’s way. Clearly the war games should cease immediately and all parties should exercise restraint and return to negotiations.
A joint U.S.-South Korea war game, dubbed “Safeguarding the Nation,” ceased to be a game when North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery fire in the West Sea on Tuesday. In response to a live fire artillery drill conducted by South Korean forces, North Korea fired some 100 artillery rounds at Yeonpyeong Island, a South Korean military post with a civilian fishing community located two miles from the disputed maritime demarcation line and eight miles from the coast of North Korea. Two South Korean marines were killed; more than a dozen other soldiers and at least 3 civilians were wounded. Shortly thereafter South Korea returned fire and scrambled F-16 fighter jets to the scene.
North Korea has denounced the joint military exercise as a provocation and it “sent messages to the South Korean government all morning,” according to the South Korean daily, Joongahn Ilbo, November 23, 2010, demanding that it be cancelled. In reply, the South Korean government explained the exercise was not an attack on North Korea.
North Korea detected the South Korean artillery fire starting at 1:00 pm according to a statement released by its official news service, KCNA. It began shelling Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 pm and South Korea responded by firing a barrage of 80 self-propelled rounds towards North Korea’s coast, starting at 3:42 pm, according to South Korean military officials. In a press briefing, spokesperson for the Blue House, Kim Hee Jung, acknowledged “Our Navy was conducting a maritime exercise near the western sea border today. North Korea has sent a letter of protest over the drill. We’re examining a possible link between the protest and the artillery attack.”
Firing from the vicinity of Yeonpyeong Island near the coast of North Korea, the South Korean artillery drill took place as part of a display of military might, which North Korea claims simulates the invasion of its territory. The games were to involve 70,000 South Korean soldiers, 50 war ships, 90 helicopters and 500 planes in joint exercises with the U.S. 7th Air Force and the U.S. Marines 31st Expeditionary Unit, through November 30, 2010.
While acknowledging that it conducted a live artillery drill, South Korea denies that any of their test shots fell in North Korean territory. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak denounced the North Korean shelling as “an invasion of South Korean territory.” However the boundary line bisecting the West Sea into North and South Korean territories, known as the Northern Limit Line (NNL), was drawn unilaterally by the United States after the Korean War. The NNL is not recognized by North Korea which claims that the line should be drawn further south. The disputed maritime border was the scene of deadly clashes in 1999, 2002, 2009 and last March when a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, participating in the Foal Eagle joint war games, went down, claiming the lives of 46 sailors, under circumstances which remain controversial.
China and Russia have cautioned against escalation. But emerging from meetings in the underground bunker of the Blue House on Tuesday President Lee remarked, “I think the (South Korean) Army, the Navy and the Air Force should unite and retaliate against (the North’s) provocation with multiple-fold firepower,” according to a Yonhap news agency report.. And Tuesday evening President Obama and President Lee agreed to hold war exercises starting Sunday that will “include sending the aircraft carrier George Washington and a number of accompanying ships into the region, both to deter further attacks by the North and to signal to China that unless it reins in its unruly ally it will see an even larger American presence in the vicinity,” according to journalist, Mark McDonald (NYT – November 24, 2010).
The frequency of U.S.-South Korea joint exercises in the West Sea increased dramatically in the aftermath of the sinking of the Cheonan. While threatening to retaliate against the drills, and actually firing artillery rounds into the ocean last summer, North Korea also released a U.S. citizen held captive for entering the country illegally, into the custody of President Jimmy Carter. During Carter’s humanitarian visit, it also proposed to restart diplomatic negotiations to pursue the denuclearization of the peninsula and replace the Korean War truce with a peace treaty. However the continuation of joint exercises, which is intended to send a stern message to North Korea, has clearly produced an unexpected outcome. North Korea is no longer firing artillery rounds into the water. If the Obama and Lee administrations believed that North Korea would not venture to fire upon superior military might, that has proven to be a tragic miscalculation. The lesson of Tuesday’s exchange of fire is that continuation of military posturing by combined U.S. and South Korean forces is likely to escalate armed conflict on the peninsula, and possibly in the region.
As an alternative to military escalation, Stanford professor, and nuclear expert, Siegfried Hecker had this to say in his report “A Return Trip to North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex,” published November 20, 2010 by Stanford University, after touring North Korea’s experimental light water reactor construction site on November 12, 2010: “It is clear that waiting patiently for Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party talks on terms acceptable to the United States and its allies will exacerbate the problem. A military attack is out of the question. Tightening sanctions further is likewise a dead end, particularly given the advances made in their nuclear program and the economic improvements we saw in general in Pyongyang. The only hope appears to be engagement. The United States and its partners should respond to the latest nuclear developments so as to encourage Pyongyang to finally pursue nuclear electricity in lieu of the bomb. That will require addressing North Korea’s underlying insecurity. A high-level North Korean government official told us that the October 2000 Joint Communiqué, which brought Secretary Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang, is a good place to start.” (Full report >)
President Carter has also urged again a return to diplomacy – in a Washington Post Op-ed, “North Korea’s Consistent Message to the U.S.,” (November 24, 2010). He wrote that during his visit to Pyongyang in July high ranking officials made clear that North Korea is ready “to conclude an agreement to end its nuclear programs, put them all under IAEA inspection and conclude a permanent peace treaty to replace the ‘temporary’ cease-fire of 1953.” They also clarified that its uranium enrichment program “would be ‘on the table’ for discussions with the U.S,” Carter explained. (Full Op-ed >)
North Korea’s resolve to defend itself from what it perceives as hostile policies and war games of the U.S. and the Lee Myung Bak administration is evident in its development of a nuclear arsenal and in its response to the military exercises on Tuesday. It is abundantly clear that the US-South Korean determination to contain North Korea by a repeated show of force is moribund, and extremely risky. It is time to exercise restraint and get back to negotiations with North Korea lest the cycle of retaliation upon retaliation, leading to all-out war, be unbroken.
Paul Liem is Board Chairperson of the Korea Policy Institute.