Troubling News from North Korea

Picture via the Associated Press and The New York Times

As many of you know, North Korea fired a number of artillery shells at a South Korean island today. The reports are still coming in, but at least two South Koreans have been killed, more have been injured, and the rest of the island’s 1,600+ residents have been evacuated to a shelter. South Korea fired back and scrambled its fighter jets. North Korea claims that this attack was provoked by recent military exercises in South Korea. Hours after the attack, North Korea accused South Korea and the U.S. of bolstering their military ties as a prelude to invasion against the communist state—but made no mention of the attack (see here). The Guardian reports that a short statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, the North said the South had fired first (presumably during the aforementioned exercises) and said it had repeatedly warned the South not to go ahead.

Obviously, the news reports are going to keep pouring in. Hopefully, North Korea won’t do anything else. South Korea appears to be taking a somewhat cautious route, since it is well aware of the risks of escalation. But if North Korea continues to launch attacks,a response will be necessary. And the U.S., as a military ally of the ROK, would probably have little choice but to become involved or run the risk of showing the rest of the world that it is not prepared to meet its defense commitments in Asia (a very dangerous proposition). And given U.S. involvement, Japan would have to tackle with the issue of how, if at all, it would participate in any military efforts directed toward North Korea. In short, it would be a real mess.

Under normal circumstances, I would say that the preceding scenario is incredibly unlikely. And I still think/hope that it’s incredibly unlikely. North Korea tends to engage in a type of brinksmanship, pushing dangerous events to the verge of disaster in order to achieve its desired outcome. We’ve seen this before, particularly in terms of North Korea’s development of weapons and nuclear capabilities. Considering The Washington Post’s recent report that North Korea said it would dismantle its nuclear weapons program if the US pledged the it had “no hostile intent,” I was prepared to believe that the DPRK was still playing the same game. Usually, North Korea backs down before things become irreversibly bad.

At the moment, however, the country is going through an internal leadership succession, which makes things a little bit less predictable and a little bit more worrisome. It is well known that Kim Jong-il is in poor health, and he has tapped his son to be the next Great Leader. At times of transition such as this, and particularly in a domestic context that is dominated by military rule and a personality cult, internal turmoil is a distinct possibility. And I have to wonder if the current attack and some of the DPRK’s other recent troublesome behavior might be rooted in some kind of internal power struggle. We’ve seen a number of signs lately, as The New York Times points out:

  • In March, a South Korean naval vessel was sunk in the area and 46 sailors died.
  • In August, North Korea fired 110 artillery rounds near Yeonpyeong and another South Korean island.
  • In early November, the South Korean Navy fired warning shots at a North Korean fishing boat after the vessel strayed across the Northern Limit Line. The North Korean boat then reportedly retreated.
  • Just a few days ago, North Korea revealed a new nuclear facility.

All of this presents the possibility that something funny (well, funnier) is going on in North Korea. I would say that it’s a good guess that Kim Jong-il is losing his iron grip over other political and military actors. If he’s in control and orchestrating these events, recent events seem to be more aggressive than his past behavior—but perhaps his ill health has damaged his reasoning abilities, or perhaps he’s trying to go out with a bang, so to speak. Another possibility is that his successor, Kim Jong-Un, is behind this. Some are already saying this, and given that so little is known about him, it’s plausible—but personally, I think it’s too early to tell. Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kyong-hui or her husband Chang Song-taek could also be behind it. Chang Song-taek is said to be North Korea’s second most-powerful leader. Another possibility is that the military has started to take things into its own hands, either in an effort orchestrated by a rogue leader or through various rebellious acts by individual units.

It’s hard to know, since we have so little information. As day breaks in various parts of the world, countries will have to decide how to respond to these attacks. The U.S. has already condemned them in a general sort of way but may have to say more. The UK and Russia have spoken out against North Korea. China’s reaction will be particularly important (as pointed out by China Real Time Report). China is often thought to have the most sway with North Korea, given their shared Communist past, the importance of Chinese trade to Korea, and other factors. However, the degree to which China can actually influence North Korea is subject to debate; China has its own problems, and it’s very concerned about instability on the Korean peninsula that might prompt refugees to rush over the Chinese border or bring the U.S. military closer to Chinese soil. After the sinking of the South Korean ship in March, China took a long time to deliver a somewhat measured response. But this time, maybe it will be different? If China joins global criticism of North Korea, it seems that we have a better shot of negotiating—presuming that there’s someone reasonable in the DPRK with whom to negotiate at the moment.

Anyway, this is all fairly speculative, but I thought I’d share some of my early impressions. By morning, hopefully we’ll have lots more information to work with. And hopefully this is just one more case of brinkmanship that will fade back into the status quo. Fingers crossed.

For now, here are some articles to tide you over: