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Update No: 091 - (29/11/10)

North Korea: Showing off nukes, shelling the South
Most of November in North Korea was relatively uneventful. But the last third of the month changed that with a vengeance, as the DPRK made headlines twice over on successive days.

On November 22 a leading US nuclear scientist reported seeing facilities which suggest that Pyongyang has got much further in enriching uranium than had been thought. As if that were not bombshell enough, next day North Korean artillery without warning shelled military and civilian targets on Yeonpyeong: one of five South Korean islands in the West (Yellow) Sea, close to North Korea. Two marines and two civilians were killed, 18 persons were injured, and fire damage to property and trees from suspected thermobaric shells was substantial. The targets included not only military bases but also a restaurant and a health centre elsewhere.

South Korean forces on the island returned fire, but the South did not escalate its retaliation further. Most of the island’s population was evacuated over the next few days. The won fell and stock markets wobbled, locally and globally. Markets in Seoul remained volatile for the rest of the week, but did not plummet. The financial effects looked unlikely to be lasting. Several brokerages suggested that investors consider this brief dip as a buying opportunity. A lower won, especially against the yen, also helps South Korean exporters.

Anger and disarry in Seoul
The political fallout went deeper. There was fury – not least in President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative ruling Grand National Party (GNP) – that the South yet again seemed impotent against Northern aggression. This also had an air of déjà vu, six months after Seoul accused Pyongyang of culpability for sinking its corvette the Cheonan in nearby waters on March 28. Then as now the South threatened to strike back – next time.

While some South Koreans query the official version regarding the Cheonan, this time there was near-unanimity. Even the left-wing daily Hankyoreh Shinmun, a noted sceptic as regards the ship sinking, wrote an editorial harshly critical of Northern aggression – and printed a map showing how most of the North’s shells had fallen on non-military targets. The longer-term political impact remains to be seen. Though President Lee is taking most flak for now, incidents like this do not help the centre-left opposition Democratic Party (DP), which wants to return to the former ‘sunshine’ policy of engaging the North. However no elections are due in South Korea until 2012, when voters will pick a new president and national assembly.

With reports that the radar and some howitzers on Yeonpyeong had not worked, the defence minister Kim Tae-yong, who had offered his resignation in May over the Cheonan, suddenly found it accepted on November 25. Even replacing him was a mess. First reports were that President Lee had appointed his top security adviser, Lee Hee-won As of November 28 the semi-official Yonhap newsagency is still carrying that ‘news’, complete with a photo of Lee:

The BBC and other media duly announced this. But in fact the new defence minister is Kim Kwan-jin, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If personnel and communications in Seoul are such a shambles, one must hope their defences are in better shape. (They may not be: on November 28 a South Korean howitzer went off by mistake, sending a shell 14km northwards towards – but fortunately not across – the Demilitarised Zone [DMZ]. The South swiftly sent a message North that this was an accident; at least the hotlines are still in use.)

America sends gunboats
The crisis continues at this writing. In a show of solidarity and force, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and accompanying vessels sailed from US bases in Japan to hold four days of joint exercises with ROK forces in the Yellow Sea, starting on November 28. Some feared this would ratchet up tensions rather than ease them; yet to do nothing would suggest weakness. Prudently, these war games are being held well south of the disputed sea border.

Pyongyang’s predictable rhetorical riposte to these moves could be summarised as: “Bring it on!” Belying its name, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) on November 26 warned that “Gone are the days when verbal warnings are served only.” A day earlier, the North’s military had declared that “the Korean People's Army will deal without hesitation the second and third strong physical retaliatory blow if the South Korean puppet warmongers commit another reckless military provocation out of all reason.” There were reports that the North had readied surface-to-surface missile batteries on its west coast.

China calms the waters
By contrast, China’s response this time was more muted than after the Cheonan. Then, its fierce opposition to US-ROK naval manoeuvres in the Yellow Sea, supposedly too close to its own coast for comfort, caused the allies rather ignominiously to retreat to waters on the other side of the peninsula. No such deference was on the cards a second time, as Beijing grasped. Its own response showed elements of disarray. China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechie, abruptly cancelled an already planned trip to Seoul. As over the Cheonan, Chinese media did not blame the North but reproduced its feeble excuses, on which more below.

By the weekend this low-key approach seemed inadequate. On November 27, as the George Washington sailed towards the Asian mainland, State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who outranks Yang Jiechie, flew to Seoul and met Lee Myung-bak for two hours. In a chilly if restrained tone, the Blue House reported that Lee “asked China to play a role to match its new status in dealing with inter-Korean relations to pursue coexistence and peace in the 21st century after the end of the Cold War”, and urged Beijing to“act in a fairer and more responsible way in dealing with South-North Korea relations and contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Next day China’s foreign ministry called a press conference in Beijing. Hopes were dashed when they produced a dead rabbit from the hat: merely proposing an emergency session of the Six Party Talks (6PT), stalled since 2008. South Korea and its allies were underwhelmed. They want and need more, though what exactly – in the realms of the feasible – is unclear.

Meanwhile China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that a top DPRK official – Choe Tae-bok, who doubles as a Party secretary and chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA, the North’s rubber-stamp parliament), will head to Beijing on November 30 for a five-day visit. This might have been in the works already, but they will have plenty to talk about.

Escalation, with no provocation
Much ink has already been spilled over why North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong. Unlike with the Cheonan, Pyongyang did not plead innocent; but its pretext did not convince. It claimed to be reacting to the South’s having first fired live artillery shells into ‘Northern’ waters, and said it had warned Seoul to desist before shooting back. But this is entirely specious.

The background here is that the North has never accepted the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto marine border set by the United Nations Command (UNC) after the Korean War. Instead it claims a line of its own, extending the land-based Military Demarcation Line (MDL) westwards. This puts Yeonpyeong and other islands – including Baengnyeong, off which the Cheonan sank – in Northern waters. Naturally this is unacceptable to the South.

In practice the North mostly respects the NLL, but intermittently challenges it. The waters near Yeonpyeong saw two brief but fatal firefights between patrol boats, in 1999 and 2002. The latest clash occured in November 2009 near Daecheong, another island in this area.
In January and February this year North Korean artillery shot volleys of shells into waters north of the NLL. The South riposted at first, firing south of the NLL, before deciding these were routine Northern winter exercises. The sinking of the Cheonan followed in March.

Both Koreas hold regular military drills. In this case the South and the US were engaged in their regular Hoguk joint exercise, held every year. The North always complains, as it does about all such manoeuvres, claiming they are a prelude to invasion. For the analyst, the key issue is whether either side ‘ups the ante’ by doing something out of the ordinary. There is no evidence that the ROK-US side did that this time, nor did Pyongyang accuse them of this. The allies fired inside South Korean waters, southwest of Yeonpyeong on the opposite side from the North Korean coast. The North did not even claim that any of its ships were a target or in the vicinity, merely that Yeonpyeong’s coastal waters were somehow its own: “There is in the West Sea of Korea only the maritime military demarcation line set by the DPRK.”

Mixed motives
This attack – said to be the first shelling of South Korean civilians since the 1953 Armistice – is thus a dramatic and deliberate escalation by North Korea. As with the Cheonan there is speculation on Kim Jong-il’s motives, and the likely balance between domestic and external goals. The former might include boosting the prestige of Kim’s third son and successor Kim Jong-eun among a military who may well remain sceptical of this untried youth, despite his implausible promotion in September to the rank of a four-star general. Significantly, it seems that both Kims were in the vicinity on the day of the North’s attack.

Yet in foreign policy terms it is hard to see what Pyongyang hopes to gain. On that front it had already achieved far more, less aggressively and more subtly, with a quite different story which broke a day before the shelling. Dr Siegfried Hecker, a leading US physicist, used to head the Los Alamos laboratories and was heavily involved in tracking down and disposing of nuclear leftovers in the former USSR. In recent years he has been invited several times to North Korea. On his first trip in 2004 he was famously handed a lump of plutonium in a jar, in a gesture evidently meant to show the US that Pyongyang’s nuclear claims (after years of denial, but that is another story) were no idle boast: look, we really have this stuff.

A worrying glimpse
Hecker’s latest visit, earlier in November, was no less dramatic. (The script could have come from one of the James Bond films which Kim Jong-il reportedly enjoys). Again he was taken to North Korea’s main nuclear site at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, with two colleagues from Stanford University: the veteran China specialist John W. Lewis, and Robert Carlin, a long-time North Korea intelligence analyst recently retired from the State Department. Dr Hecker’s report is available at

The good news is that several facilities linked to past plutonium-based activity, hitherto the main concern, are no longer in use. A 50 megwatt-electric (MWe) gas-graphite reactor, near completion in the mid-1990s but abandoned during the Agreed Framework signed by the US in 1994 during Bill Clinton’s presidency, was being dismantled with large cranes. Officials at Yongbyon referred to this and other plant as “ruined concrete structures and iron scrap.”

The bad news was what has replaced this. With a show of reluctance, but on orders from the top in Pyongyang, local scientists hurried Hecker and his team through an ultra-modern plant for enriching uranium, with up to 2,000 centrifuges operating. This hitherto unsuspected site is brand-new, built to world-class standards in barely 18 months since IAEA inspectors were kicked out of Yongbyon in April 2009. Despite claims that this is to provide fuel for a new light water reactor (LWR) in the early stages of construction, the clear signal intended is that North Korea is much further down a second route to potentially producing nuclear weapons – via highly enriched uranium (HEU), rather than plutonium – than anyone had imagined.

No longer the same horse
Dr Hecker’s report, disclosed to the White House some days before it was published, put the cat among Washington’s pigeons. President Obama hastily dispatched his (part-time) special adviser on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, for consultations in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing; so he was in the region when Yeonpyeong was hit. On its own, this new revelation would surely have pressured all three allies to rethink their reluctance to return to the six party talks, absent a change of heart by Pyongyang. The US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, has said that America will not buy the same horse twice. In that sense Kim Jong-il was showing off a fresh thoroughbred, or at least a frisky colt. This news is a potentially a major game-changer.

By contrast, the attack on Yeonpyeong makes resumption of dialogue more difficult, at least in the short run. So why do both? There are at least two hypotheses, and both may be true.

Robert Madsen of MIT suggests that the shelling enabled North Korea to swiftly change the agenda, from the nuclear issue in particular to tensions on the peninsula more generally. This buys it more time – several months at least – to press on with enriching uranium; rather than being summoned urgently to fresh talks and told to stop, as would otherwise likely happen.

Or one can come at all this from another angle. North Korea’s philosophy of juche is often translated as self-reliance, but that is misleading: right from the outset the DPRK has always needed, demanded and taken other people’s money. Rather, its abiding aim is to do this yet at the same time remain unbeholden to and unbiddable by anyone. Squaring that circle gets no easier, but Pyongyang is adept at finding and exploiting whatever wiggle room it can.

Its provocations are thus carefully calculated and calibrated. Even as Kim Jong-il draws ever closer to China, he needs to signal that he is not about to go quietly; and that despite a still delicate and incomplete succession, nobody messes with the DPRK or takes it for granted. In that context the fallout from the Cheonan – or rather the lack of any – may have been read in Pyongyang as a licence to provoke further. Now as then, the gamble is that South Koreans have no stomach for a fight and Lee Myung-bak dare not upset financial markets, much less risk a robust retaliation that might rain down artillery fire and missiles on Seoul itself. In a word, the KPA shelled Yeonpyeong because they knew they could get away with it – again. What fun, they might think, to watch Lee flail and squirm. Give it a few months, and they may well try again.

That view is admittedly both speculative and pessimistic. I hope to be wrong, but by North Korean logic this makes a nasty kind of sense. They must be careful not to prod China too far; but neither the Cheonan nor Yeonpyeong seems to have done that. Cornered and out of road by any normal standards, the Kims will keep trying to push the envelope as worst they can. One wishes for better in 2011, but that would be a triumph of hope over experience.

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