What happened exactly?
On November 23, 2010 from 2:34 p.m. to 4:42 p.m., North Korea fired approximately 170 artillery shells on the island of Yeonpyeong-do, off the western coast of South Korea. Approximately 80 shells hit the island. The artilleries were either installed on the North Korean coast, or were mobile ones. The shells appeared to be aimed toward the military base on the island, as the first round of shells fell on the barracks. Two soldiers and two civilians died. Six soliders were seriously wounded. Ten soldiers and three civilians suffered minor injuries. Two civilians are missing. Around 20 civilian buildings were destroyed.
South Korean artillery returned fire, launching approximately 80 shells toward the base from which the initial attack came. There is no information regarding North Korea's damage yet, but the early speculation is that South Korean response was inadequate both in terms of magnitude and type. South Korean rules of engagement calls for a return fire double the size of the attack, but South Korean artillery ended up firing less than half the size. Also, North Korean artilleries are hidden inside caves along the coast, shielded from South Korean artillery.
South Korea also deployed eight fighter jets, but they did not engage -- the figher jets' mission was to bomb the missile bases should North Korea progress beyond the artillery attacks. But for the second time since Cheonan, South Korean military is being blamed for its incompetent management of an actual, war-like conditions.
Where is Yeonpyeong-do, and why is it important?
Yeonpyeong-do is an island which is pretty far west into the Yellow Sea. Significantly, the island is less than 10 miles away from North Korean coast. It has a military base and a civilian population of approximately 1,700. The island mostly lives off of crab fishing from the nearby seas.
North Korea's choice of Yeonpyeong-do to shell has much to do with the Northern Limits Line (NLL). At the end of Korean War in 1953, the maritime border between North and South Korea was not set completely. The line was drawn by Gen. Mark Clark, the commander of the UN troops aiding South Korea, and South Korea has treated NLL as the de facto maritime border.
North Korea has consistently asserted that NLL is not the true border. It had asserted a very different maritime border, and threatened military action without warning should South Korean ships cross its line. This is a significant advantage for North Korea -- because the NLL is not a settled line, it can engage in military actions without violating the Armistice Treaty. It may sound funny to discuss the law in this kind of circumstance, but if North Korea had shelled a part of mainland South Korea that was equally desolate -- for example, like Goseong, Gangwon-do -- the significance of its actions would have been much greater. (Not that the actions are not hugely significant already.)
The blue line is the NLL. Red dotted line is the line asserted by North Korea.
Under North Korea's assertion, there would be a narrow sea-channel that would
allow South Korean boats to access the islands.
Seoul is the red dot on the far right. Yeonpyeong-do is the island in the middle,
very close to the NLL. (Source)
How was North and South Korea getting along up to this point? What precipitated this attack?
They were getting along badly, but not as bad as you think. The sinking of ROKS Cheonan in March, which stayed front and center in Korean public's minds until late May, definitely strained the relationship. But in fact, the relationship was softening up a little by August. North Korea suffered massive starvation and epidemic because of a flood, and South Korea sent some amount of humanitarian aid in response. Earlier this month, there was a meeting between the families separated between North and South Korea, and by all indications those meetings would happen regularly.
Some media have been reporting that the shelling came in response to South Korea's military drill, but it is more accurate to say that North Korea used South Korea's military drill as an excuse. South Korea has been doing the same exact military drill for decades, and for just as long North Korea responded shrilly, threatening military action for South Korea's "provocation." North Korea issued the exact same threat this time around, but South Korean military ignored it. South Korea had an artillery drill in the morning of the day of the attack, but that drill fired shots toward Southwest, away from North Korea.
Why did North Korea attack?
No one can know for sure, but there are some guesses. The succession of Kim Jong-Un, 27-year-old son of Kim Jong-Il, has not been going as smoothly as was hoped. I was in the middle of translating a post from Mr. Joo Seong-Ha, who had heard from his North Korean informants that the younger Kim is hated by regular North Koreans. Few excuses are better than the threat of war to crack down the opposition. There is also a theory that this attack was intended to bring United States to the bargaining table. I will discuss more about that later in the post.
How serious is this attack?
Any time there is an artillery shelling, it is a serious matter. But even more than that, this attack is a very, very serious matter -- even more serious than the attack on ROKS Cheonan in March of this year. First of all, this attack was made on South Korean land -- the first such attack since the war. The attack was indiscriminate as to military and civilian targets. (But there is some question as to whether the shells on the civilian target were the result of a deliberate or inaccurate aim.) Both soldiers and civilians died. And most importantly, North Korea has much less deniability than the Cheonan attack. Not to say that North Korea had much deniability in the sunken ship, but at least it could deny the responsibility for attack. Only idiots would buy that denial, but at least someone would buy it. This time, not even idiots can buy North Korea's denial of responsibility. (But they surely will try, I think.) I will elaborate more on this point below as well.
What will be the response of relevant parties?
This part will take time to develop, but right now it seems that South Korea and the U.S. are contemplating the response, Japan is upset but does not have many cards to play with, and China issued a statement that said North Korea has long tolerated South Korea's provocations. (Which is Grade-A bullshit.)
Questions from readers after the jump. For this topic, I will continue to take questions in the comment board and answer them.
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I hear that a large percentage of the mainland folk are far more apathetic about the situation and have shrugged it off. Why is this?
- Steve H.
I teach at a university in Seoul. I have a handful of male students who have already completed their military service, and are now in the reserves. The opinion in this admittedly small sample seems to be split between complete indifference and chomping at the bit to go fight. Is that split in opinion pretty widespread?
South Koreans' apathy for North Korean provocations have become quite famous around the world, because it is so difficult to imagine what it is like to constantly live in a state where nuclear annihilation is a real possibility. But once you live in South Korea, there is not much you can do other than ignore the danger.
Let me put it in personal terms -- my entire life in Korea was spent in Seoul, 30 miles away from DMZ. In fact, my school field trip included a trip to DMZ. In my relatively short lifetime, South Korea's president has been attacked with a bomb in Myanmar, which killed half the cabinet; South Korean airline was bombed by North Korean terrorists, killing hundreds; North Korean spy killed a former high-ranking North Korean defector in front of his house; North Korean submarine randomly appeared on the South Korean coast and its crew killed several soldiers before committing mass suicide; civilian South Korean tourist to North Korea was randomly shot in the back by a North Korean soldier; North Korean warships skirmished several times with South Korean gunboats, killing sailors; North Korean submarine sinks a South Korean warship. And now the shelling. Moreover, draft-age males all know exactly where to be and what to do in case of a war. If you think constantly about these things, the fear will paralyze you.
(Arguably -- emphasis on ARGUABLY -- South Koreans have a healthier mentality than Americans, who are so afraid of terrorists that they are willing to be either shown naked to or groped by a stranger before boarding on an airplane. Despite 60 years of being terrorized by North Korea, metal detectors are few and far between in South Korea.)
But this does not mean South Koreans are not concerned, or not angry. Make no mistake about it -- the outward lack of reaction is utterly incongruent with the deep anger and frustration felt by South Koreans. And younger people -- particularly young men who just completed their military duties, which is mostly a preparation of how to fight North Korea -- are more prone to expressing that frustration. They are as sick as anybody about having to take this shit for decades, and they want revenge. But I would say that the majority of South Koreans are more about gritting teeth and dealing with it.
Is now the time to get out of Korea?
If you are the type that gets paralyzed by fear, maybe. If I had to handicap it, in a "normal" state there is maybe 1 percent chance that there could be a new Korean War. After this, I would say something like 2.5 percent. Trust me on this -- no one is more afraid of war than South Koreans themselves. They have experienced it firsthand, and they know it is not a picnic.
I would, however, advise that it would not be a bad idea to review the evacuation plan that your country has. Chris in South Korea has a great collection of that information. War is not a joke -- being ready for the least probable is still a smart idea when it comes to war.
Administration (on both sides) want to avoid any kind of extended military conflict, and they'll do a more than sufficient job of making sure things remain contained in these Cold War-esque skirmishes. My question to The Korean is: would you agree with this assessment?
Does Korea have a strong military and are they adequately prepared to defend themselves against the tyrant in N. Korea, especially now that N. Korea is trying to go nuclear? What part does the U.S. military play in S. Korea's defense? Do you think China will step in to help N. K. like they did during the Korean War?
What do you think is going to happen in Korea what with the brouhaha that has taken place today?
-Concerned Overseas Korean
I am answering all three at the same time because they are interrelated. In the short term, I agree with Katherine. Neither North nor South wants an all-out war, and that has much to do with the respective strengths of North and South.
At this point, there is no question that in case of an all-out war, South Korea (with America's support, but nothing like the scale of forces committed in Afghanistan) will emerge victorious in the end. South Korea has superior weaponry, particularly in the air force. North Korean weaponry is a hand-me-down Russian guns, tanks and jets from the 1950s and 60s, and there is a real doubt as to whether North Korea even has enough food to have their soldiers fight, much less fuels to run its war machines. With help from American air support, South Korea should be able to destroy Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un with air strike pretty quickly. North Koreans have no delusions about their broken country. Once defeat is evident, North Korean people are unlikely to resist.
Against this backdrop, North Korea has exactly three things to count on -- (1) artillery and missiles pointed at Seoul; (2) threat of nuclear attack; (3) China. The first point is crucial and cannot be overstated -- North Korea needs nothing else other than conventional artillery and short-range missiles to vaporize a significant portion of Seoul, South Korea's capital and a city of 10 million people, within one hour or so. And there is no way to intercept conventional artillery shells. The best South Korea can do is to bomb the artillery bases after the first round of shells are fired -- and by then, Seoul is already a pile of rubble. (Ironically, this makes the threat of nuclear attack nearly meaningless when it comes to South Korea -- no need for a nuke when artilleries will do. North Korea's nuclear threat is really more for the U.S. and Japan.)
China is another problem. Although it is becoming increasingly obvious that North Korea is a liability to China rather than a help, China is continuing with its position and protecting North Korea. Unified Korea with South Korea taking the lead means that there will be a U.S.-friendly country right at the doorstep of China -- as if Russia had conquered Florida at the height of Cold War. China does not want that. If a second Korean War happens, there is a solid chance that China will intervene like it did 60 years ago. This is another significant deterrence for South Korea to take proactive actions.
This dilemma was reflected in South Korean president's response -- when he received the news of the shelling, his first order was: "Avoid expansion of the conflict," followed by another order 30 minutes later: "Respond sternly but take care not to aggravate the situation." Only after a barrage of criticisms about the timidity of the response did President Lee Myoung-Bak issued orders along the lines of "Retaliate several times over" and "Enormous punishment is necessary so that no more provocation is possible."
President Lee pretty much had to make that kind of statement, even though by then the damage has been long done. The eternal problem is -- there is NOTHING South Korea can do to stop this type of provocation from North Korea. Cutting off aid means nothing to North Korea -- the regime survived when millions starved to death during the 1990s. Giving aids also means nothing -- North Korea developed nuclear weapon and attacked South Korean navy even when South Korean administrations were relatively friendlier to the North. Not even annihilating a few artillery bases means anything to Kim Jong-Il/Kim Jong-Un regime, and doing so would likely trigger all-out war at any rate.
What will happen? As of now, my bet is -- business as usual. Tension will run high, and somebody -- North or South, it does not matter -- will reach out for a dialogue, offering a temporary solution. And the other side -- again North or South, it does not matter -- will accept that solution. For neither party wants to hurtle down toward the end game.
What do YOU think is the proper South Korean response?
Somehow, this situation reminds me of poker. Two people are in a poker tournament with $1,000 each in chips. Pre-flop raise of $100 and a call gives them a heads up. Flop comes, the bet is $150. Call. The pot is now $500. Turn card comes, the bet is $300. Do you call?
If you call, you know where this is going. You only have $450 left over, and the pot is $1100. If you call, you have to be ready to commit your remaining money as well. But if you fold, you just lost a quarter of your chips without putting up a fight.
This North Korean attack is the $300 bet. It is forcing South Korea to act one way or the other. If South Korea folds and appeases North Korea, there will be another round of aggressive betting coming this way, and South Korea will have even less money to play with. If South Korea stands firm and fights, it inevitably comes to a showdown -- where it can win little more than a Pyrric victory.
I know what I would do at that table. But I never played poker with thousands of human lives as chips.
Facile comparisons aside, here are some things in my mind.
- South Korea needs to seriously think about the end game. There really are only two end games: (1) Kim Jong-Un succeeds the throne successfully, somehow gets the security of his regime guaranteed by U.S. and South Korea. Kim remains tyrant for his life, and passes down the throne to another generation and possibly thereafter; (2) Reunification happens, peacefully or otherwise.
- North Korea must be considering the end game also, particularly because the heir apparent is taking the throne. Kim Jong-Un is yet to prove that he is as astute a politician as his father. Therefore, long-term stability must be provided to ensure a smooth succession. Thus option (1) is the one to pursue. Ultimately, North Korea wants to have a bilateral discussion with the United States such that U.S. will guarantee its security. This provocation, along with the recent revelation of uranium enrichment facility, fits this aim. The greater threat North Korea appears to be, the more likely that U.S. will do something about that threat -- provided that U.S. will bomb it back to stone age, which is unlikely to happen.
- For South Korea, number (2) is the only acceptable option. There is little reason to expect that North Korea under Kim Jong-Un will be any better than North Korea under Kim Jong-Il. If North Korea attempts China-style reform, it will likely spell doom for the Kim family regime. North Korean people are long done buying the Kim family propaganda. If they receive some tiny measure of freedom and economic wealth, there is a strong chance that they will not tolerate their oppressive regime. There is little reason to think that Kim Jong-Un will risk that. Therefore, North Korean regime will remain just as oppressive and just as dangerous.
- I used to be the biggest supporter of Sunshine Policy, but not since the Cheonan sinking, and definitely not after this. There is no way South Koreans will accept Sunshine Policy any more at any rate. But the worrisome part is that South Korean government is also unprepared for the consequences of its hard-line stance. Hard-line stance is fine, but the consequences of a hard-line stance are plain; shit like this will happen. And if hard-line stance continues, more shit like this will happen. In fact, the provocation will become stronger and more dangerous.
This should give everyone a pause. If we should continue maintaining hard-line against North Korea, what next? North Korea is no stranger to terrorist attacks. It has blown up planes, bombed South Korean president and sent a special forces squad to Seoul. It can do again all of the above, and then some. How much will South Korea tolerate? And when South Korea somehow manages to continue stonewalling, the next step for North Korea would be to get on America's nerves as well. Threat of nuclear proliferation will do just the trick.
- As to what I think, let me start with a big caveat: What I think does not mean shit. I am just a guy who reads a lot of news. But since I am asked, here is what I think.
I think South Korea needs to have a very serious national dialogue on what it wants to do. South Koreans will need to make a firm decision on the type of end game it wants, and will have to understand what costs will be incurred by moving toward that end game.
Right now, South Koreans want a hard-line stance (understandably,) but I am not sure if they yet considered fully the consequences of that stance. Hard-line stance means more kidnapping, more terrorist attacks and more shelling. It might mean all-out war. It might mean half-destroyed Seoul. If this is not an acceptable consequence, South Korea needs to push hard for the other end game -- accept North Korea for what it is, attempt to stabilize it and give up on reunification. It will have to accept the fact that it will continue to give aids, and it will still occasionally suffer the indignity of being pushed around, while holding out hope against hope that North Korea will undergo China-style reform despite odds against it. In other words, all South Koreans need to assess the situation with eyes wide open, pick one route, and stick with it.
To close, please god, don't let this woman come anywhere near a position to control the military: Sarah Palin wants to "stand with our North Korean allies." Fucking moron. You bring shame to America.
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