Itchy trigger fingers in Pyongyang and Seoul are pressing multiple red buttons in 2022. Who’s mostly to blame?
SEOUL – Warning shots were exchanged over the Yellow Sea maritime frontier between the two Koreas in the early hours of this morning (October 24), pouring fuel onto an already heated situation on the peninsula.
There were no reports of damage or death along the NLL, or “Northern Limit Line,” and both sides managed the mini-crisis without being sucked into the dreaded escalatory spiral. But the exchange of shots across ships’ bows is just the latest in a series of military provocations launched so far this year with no end in sight.
What is driving these tensions and who is to blame?
North Korea has been engaged in its busiest-ever year of missile tests in 2022. And last month it upgraded its doctrine, announcing a swift escalation to nuclear and a “dead hand” system under which North Korean forces would launch nuclear warheads if national leader Kim Jong Un were killed or incapacitated.
Meanwhile, there is widespread expectation among pundits, citing satellite data showing activity at the state’s underground test site, that Pyongyang will detonate a nuclear device late this year. It would mark the seventh such test, if it happens.
Kim’s moves come against the backdrop of a diplomatic freeze with Seoul and Washington; a domestic population suffering from the years-long closure of the China border due to Covid; and ongoing carnage in Ukraine.
But it is not just the North. South Korea, too, is raising the strategic stakes.
A new administration in Seoul has proven far less amenable toward Pyongyang than its predecessor. It has restarted military drills with US forces for the first time since 2017 and has joined – highly unusual for a Seoul administration – exercises with Japan.
Experts assign blame for the escalation in both directions.
Seoul, they say, is sending signals by waving a big military stick – something Pyongyang is also doing, though the regime also needs to raise external threats to justify its existence. And there is a wild card: Pyongyang may be seeking closer ties with an embattled Russia.
Fire on the water
A North Korean merchant vessel violated the NLL at 3:42 am today but retreated northwards after South Korean naval assets issued radio warnings and then fired some 20 warning shots, according to the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At 3:50 am, the North Korean military claimed a South Korean warship made a “naval intrusion” into its waters and fired 10 rockets into the sea from land-based multiple rocket launchers in what state media called “a grave warning.”
A Seoul-based analyst downplayed the incident.
“This was at sea, so it was a lot slower moving and easier to control than an air exercise, and away from population centers,” Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University, told Asia Times.
“There are some questions – it was a merchant ship and the timing of it, in the early morning hours, was a little bit odd. Was this just a ship that inadvertently drifted south of the NLL, or was it deliberately sent there in a probing maneuver?”
The NLL is a more incendiary flashpoint than the inter-Korean land frontier, popularly known as the DMZ. Both were established in the wake of the 1950-53 Korean War, but the latter was the fruit of mutual negotiations while the NLL was unilaterally declared by Washington after talks failed to reach an agreement.
The NLL in the Yellow Sea covers rich crab-fishing grounds. Moreover, two heavily fortified South Korean-held islands, Yeongpyeong and Baengnyeong, respectively 12 kilometers and 16 kilometers off North Korea’s coast, present a constant challenge to North Korean navigation.
The land DMZ was the site of infiltrations, commando operations and contacts in the 1960 and 1970s, but in recent years has been largely quiet apart from occasional defections, landmine casualties and negligent discharges that send bullets or shells over the line.
Kinetic action has shifted to the NLL, the site of deadly patrol boat clashes in 1999, 2002 and 2009. Worse was to come in 2010.
That year, a South Korean corvette sank off Baengnyeong with the loss of 46 crew. A South Korean and international investigation accused North Korea of a mini-submarine attack. (North Korea denies it.)
In the same year, after South Korean marines on Yeongpyeong conducted an offshore artillery drill, North Korea bombarded the island with rockets and shells, killing four.
Yet the NLL is, de facto, largely respected by Pyongyang. If it were not, it would be the site of constant, open naval warfare.
The gunfire early this morning is just the latest sign of itchy trigger fingers amid a very jittery 2022.
In the Chinese zodiac, 2022 is the “Year of the Tiger” – an animal that one astrological site considers “volatile, unpredictable, aggressive and temperamental.” 1950 – the year the Korean War erupted – was also a tiger year, and 2022 has heard seemingly endless rockets boom.
Pyongyang has launched almost every projectile class: long-, mid- and short-range ballistic; hypersonic ballistic; short- and long-range cruise; and tactical MLRS. Moreover, it has shown off some creative, survivable platforms, including an underwater launch pad in a lake and the flatbed of a moving train.
“If you look at the testing in February, they announced they are operational,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general told Asia Times. “That means their missiles are not just manufactured, they are in use. They are saying, ‘Not only can we parade them, we have crews trained and ready.’”
A subsequent test fired nine missiles from three sites. “They showed they have the ability to coordinate different locations, firing multiple missiles,” Chun said.
On September 19, North Korean troops fired 170 artillery rounds into the waters off both east and west coasts – albeit north of the NLL – challenging a 2018 bilateral military agreement.
The same day, Pyongyang sent formations of aircraft towards the DMZ initiating a tense “chicken game” with South Korean F35s that swiftly scrambled. The North Korean aircraft turned back 15 kilometers from the border, leading Chun to speculate that the move was a test of Seoul’s response timings.
Of the North Korean aircraft, four were nuclear-capable bombers, Chun added.
And on October 3, North Korea fired a ballistic missile through space over Japan. But it is not just Pyongyang playing dangerous games.
Seoul and Washington have resumed exercises – not computer simulations, but actual drills with ground, air and naval assets – for the first time since 2017. Most recently, South Korean and Japanese forces conducted both anti-submarine and anti-missile drills “for several days” on two occasions this month with the powerful USS Ronald Reagan carrier group.
Seoul’s more asssertive posture can be explained by a change of government, which took place in May.
Diplomatically engaging North Korea and calling Japan to account for historical misdeeds were the standout foreign policies of the prior Moon Jae-in administration. The progressive Moon was assisted by then-US president Donald Trump’s 2018 halt to joint exercises to “give diplomacy space to work.” And even after US engagement with North Korea ended after Trump walked out of a 2019 summit with Kim, exercises were still halted due to the two-year pandemic.
Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May as Covid was burning out globally. He campaigned on upgrading Seoul’s alliance with the US and revitalizing relations with Japan. Not only have drills with the US restarted, more recently trilateral exercises with Japan have been undertaken off the peninsula’s east coast.
A demonstration firing of tactical guided weapons at an undisclosed location in North Korea on March 21, 2020. Photo: KCNA via KNS
“The shift in policy in South Korea – rather a sharp shift – is causing possibilities for unexpected consequences,” Chun said. “it is not wrong policy – going back to training is good – but they could have done it a little more smartly: If I were this administration, I would not have publicized all the things we are doing.”
But while these drills may publicly be anathema to Kim, privately, they help him stir up domestic “grievance politics.”
“With these kind of ideologies and belief systems there has to be an external enemy,” added Pinkston. “It is kind of an echo chamber – ‘Everyone is against us!’ – so [the regime] sustains itself.”
Absent external enemies, Kim’s leadership “does not make any sense,” Pinkston said.
But there are deadlier rumblings in 2022 than Northeast Asian tensions: Russia’s storm upon Ukraine. The Ukraine war may offer an opening for Kim.
Since the dissolution of the USSR, North Korea has been forced to rely almost exclusively on China for economic aid. Now, with Moscow bogged down on the battlefield, Pyongyang may seek to tighten ties, gaining an additional benefactor that will lessen its reliance on Beijing.
Pyongyang has already offered diplomatic support to Russia’s annexation of eastern Ukrainian territories. And Russia has vetoed a US proposal at the UN Security Council to pile more sanctions on North Korea for its ongoing missile tests.
Rumors – so far unsubstantiated – swirl of possible North Korean exports of labor, arms and ammunition to Russia and/or the Donbas republics. Still, one Russian expert is unsure quite what Kim can offer Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Trade is possible but Russia would be basically subsidizing the trade, and Russia’s economy, next year, is not going to be in good shape,” Andrei Lankov, who studies North Korea at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told Asia Times.
Lankov also questioned whether Pyongyang could supply Moscow with usable arms, given the relatively undeveloped state of the country’s conventional forces.
Yet with South Korea having signed a series of multi-billion dollar arms deals with Poland – deals that could feasibly free up Warsaw to dispatch older weapons to Kiev – Moscow might yet reach out to Pyongyang.
“If South Korea sends weapons to Poland there is likely to be a kind of reaction,” Lankov said. “But the only thing [Putin] will give North Korea is diplomatic support, as military cooperation would have to be subsidized.”
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