By William Tucker
At 2:30 p.m. local time, North Korea initiated an artillery attack on the island of Yeonpyeongdo after sending several letters to the South protesting the current war games taking place in the area. Yeonpyeongdo island is located in a disputed area of the Yellow Sea and is inhabited by South Korean civilians. South Korea did retaliate with an artillery barrage of its own and has moved to its highest military alert. At this time both sides have stopped firing, but the event is certainly not over.
Some of you may remember that back in March of this year, the South Korean naval vessel ChonAn suffered an explosion which sunk the ship and killed over 40 sailors. Although the South Korean government blamed the North for the sinking it did little else as a means of retaliation. While this was due to U.S. pressure to prevent escalation, the government of Lee Myung Bak will find itself in a tight spot. The South cannot ignore the pressure of its most important ally, but it also cannot ignore the call from its people to handle these situations with the North more decisively. Furthermore, the North has just completed a new nuclear plant prompting President Lee to request the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the country. It is clear that the South is worried.
North Korea on the other hand is at a transition point. Kim Jong-il is not in good shape and visibly ill, as such he has designated his youngest son as his successor. But this has created a problem. The party has accepted him, but the military has its doubts. North Korea is in bad shape economically and has suffered a population decline in the millions from the horrid living conditions. Economic turmoil mixed with a sharp political divide has the potential to be disastrous for the country and its neighbors. This recent exchange of artillery may be the most dangerous escalation since the cease-fire was signed over a half century ago leaving many to wonder if a return to war is inevitable. But we must also consider the possibility of the collapse of the North Korean regime which would be just as dangerous. This is not to say that a collapse will happen, but rather that it is a possibility that can no longer ignored.
My position is that an escalation in the short term is unlikely. The only caveat I would add is that the political situation in North Korea is rather tenuous and a military escalation may help to bridge the current divide. The North has done this repeatedly in the past, but this is only the second time the country has gone through a leadership transition since the establishment of communist rule. The soon to be leader, Kim Jong-un, does not have any military experience despite being recently given the rank of General. Overall, the military may feel slighted in the deal and could want a bigger role in state affairs under Kim Jong-un’s impending rule. How the younger Kim handles this situation will be a bellwether for the future direction of North Korea.