Is the Korean Peninsula at the point of no return?
Early Tuesday morning, local time, South Korean military forces were conducting a military exercise from a Marine base on the island of Yeonpyeong. The exercise involved firing artillery from the base, out over the Yellow Sea, to the south of the island — and away from North Korean territory. North Korea contacted the South during the exercise and demanded that the South cease fire. When the South refused to comply with the North’s demand, North Korea opened fire on Yeonpyeong Island, territory that has been recognized by the United Nations as belonging to the South for 57 years.
This attack is the most serious incident between the two nations since they were divided after the Second World War. The North Korean attack, involving approximately 100 artillery shells, hit the base on Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean Marines and wounding 15 others. The North also shelled several civilian villages around the base. It is not known whether or not the civilian areas were intentionally targeted or were hit due to failures in North Korean targeting, but multiple (reports range from several to several dozen) private homes and buildings were destroyed. The island’s civilian population quickly sought shelter underground, but three civilians were still wounded in the attack.
South Korea was not long in responding. It immediately returned fire with its own artillery; while the North has of course not revealed its own losses, the South Korean military is a modern, well-equipped fighting force, and it’s near certain that they hit what they were aiming at. North Korean casualties are likely. The South also scrambled F-16 fighter jets to the area, but there are no reports yet as to whether or not they engaged any targets in North Korea. The South Korean military, while holding off on any further reaction to the North’s attack, is now at its maximum state of alert.
It is difficult to overstate the gravity of Tuesday’s attack. The two Koreas are both heavily armed nations, locked in a permanent state of war since a truce ended the Korean War in 1953. The two armies face off against each other across the Demilitarized Zone, where the modern military of South Korea, some 600,000 strong, is opposite a larger North Korean military, of an estimated one million troops, armed with mid-20th century weapons.
The North’s technological backwardness should not cause anyone to underestimate it. Quantity has a quality on its own, and in a final battle between the larger Cold War-era force and the modern, mobile South Koreans, while the South would likely win, it would not do so cheaply. Its capital city, Seoul, is within artillery range of North Korean positions, and as the North has shown today, it is now willing to use its artillery against South Korean soil. Any war between the two would be devastating in both lives and property and would send shockwaves through the fragile global economy.
This is not the first time that the South has been provoked by North Korea. Indeed, it was only eight months ago, in March, that the North Korean Navy launched an unprovoked attack upon the South. The South Korean warship Cheonan was torpedoed as it sailed the waters near Yeonpyeong Island. The torpedo explosion, which struck with no warning, blew the Cheonan in half. She went down quickly, taking 46 men with her. Another man, a South Korean rescue diver, would later die during search and recovery efforts to the Cheonan’s hulk.
The ship was raised, and in an incredible display of forensic investigation, the South Koreans were able to recover fragments of the torpedo that destroyed their warship. The South formed a group of international experts— the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia sent military personnel to assist — and both the international group and South Koreans concluded that the torpedo was of North Korean design. North Korea, of course, rejected the findings of the allied nations. (Russian experts came to no conclusion, saying there was not enough evidence to be sure it was a deliberate Northern attack, while China suggested that the Cheonan was sunk by accidental contact with a mine or a collision with an American submarine).
The government of the South resisted serious public pressure after that attack to retaliate with force against the North. This attack is likely to prove similar, if not worse — a clash at sea between warships is one thing, shelling civilians in their homes is quite another. Already, there are signs that the government of the South is prepared to go to war should any further provocations be forthcoming — the President of South Korea has even gone so far as to expressly call for “enormous retaliation.” The United States, which maintains 28,000 troops in South Korea and has overall tactical command of all allied forces there, while calling for calm, quickly said that it was fully committed to South Korean security.
It is likely that the United States will be working behind the scenes to reduce tensions in the region. China is likely also applying pressure on their North Korean ally, despite the fact that China is maddeningly reluctant to punish North Korea for its actions, having given it diplomatic cover at the UN and elsewhere when it test fired missiles, exported nuclear technology and built up a nuclear arsenal of its own. North Korea has proven depressingly adept at creating crises and then waiting for international aid to pour in as part of “restoring calm.” It is likely that something similar will happen again.
But these are troubling times for the North Koreans. Their great leader, Kim Jong-il, has long been rumored to be in poor health, and of late, his son, Kim Jong-un, has been promoted to senior positions in the North Korean government in military, clearly to enable him to continue the family dynasty when his father dies. Tuesday’s attack can be seen as the younger man’s attempt to prove to the world that he is as intimidating (or unpredictably dangerous) as his father. If so, it is to be hoped he has no other such demonstrations planned. Today, the Korean peninsula stands on the brink of war. A rookie mistake by an inexperienced leader eager to live up to his father’s infamous standard might be all it takes to push things past the point of no return.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.