North Korea’s artillery barrage on South Korea comes shortly after the regime revealed an advanced uranium enrichment site and about a month after a clash was sparked when a South Korean border post was fired upon. This should not be seen as a sign of confidence but a sign of deep concern over the handing of power to Kim Jong-Un. This insecurity is a double-edged sword: It means the regime has weaknesses, but it also means that North Korea will become more aggressive as these weaknesses grow.
North Korea struck the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on November 23 with about 200 artillery shells, killing two marines and two civilians. South Korea responded with about 80 rounds, prompting the North to warn of a “merciless thunderbolt” of retaliation if any more action was taken. President Lee Myung-bak dismissed his Defense Minister two days later after he was criticized for the speed of the response. It also came out that the South Korean military had detected the movement of the 122-mm Multiple Launch Rocket Systems used for the attack and they had even been test-fired but the South Korean military didn’t go on alert.
The South’s marine commander has promised a “thousand-fold revenge” and the President said, “I think enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again.” The military is being told to strike a missile base near the coastal artillery systems if more strikes happen, and the rules of engagement are being changed to give commanders flexible options of retaliation dependent upon the nature of the assault. Plans to decrease the number of marines have been cancelled and reinforcements are being sent to the islands.
The attack was premeditated and is part of an effort by Kim Jong-Il to strengthen Kim Jong-Un’s grip on the military that keeps the regime in place. The two had visited the top military officials in the area of the attack, including the artillery battalion in charge of the base the artillery was fired from. The fighting also followed the regime’s decision to show its uranium enrichment site to Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Lab, earlier in the month. He said he was “stunned” by how advanced the site was and that he was informed that 2,000 centrifuges had been set up. North Korea was also seen erecting a lightwater reactor at Yongbyon and on October 29, a South Korean guard post was fired on.
This follows a pattern where North Korea engages in a flurry of provocations that coincide with a move to secure the succession process. On March 26, a North Korean torpedo sunk the South Korean Cheonan warship, killing 46. This happened around the same time that North Korea accused the South’s army of crossing the border and opening fire; the North seized five properties at the jointly-operated Mt. Kumgang; and two North Korean agents were arrested as they planned to kill a top defector in the South. It was later learned that Kim Jong-Un gave the orders for the attack on the Cheonan.
Last year, North Korea conducted a nuclear test and immediately after Kim Jong-Il had the top officials pledge their loyalty to Kim Jong-Un. The reason Kim Jong-Il feels this strategy will work is because it worked for him. In 1987, Kim Jong-Il was in his son’s position as the designated successor. He ordered the blowing up of a South Korean airliner and an attempt to kill the South Korean President in Burma.
The level of uncertainty is much higher today than it was then, so the intensity of the provocations will be greater. The population is becoming more aware of their depravity and the loyalty of the ruling party and military is in doubt. Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura of Waseda University says that a major purge is underway, with 20 to 30 officials having been executed and around 1000 arrested. Defectors claim that Kim Jong-Un is personally involved in the purge and is replacing older military leaders with younger loyalists.
In an unprecedented incident in December 2009, the North Korean population voiced their opposition to the regime’s decision to ban foreign currency, forcing Kim Jong-Il to backtrack. He executed his top financial official after the blunder. Polls of refugees show the majority blame the regime for the poor conditions of the country and over half of the population now read foreign news. These are decisive changes that fundamentally alter the country and strike fear in the heart of the regime.
The West is caught in a deadly catch-22. The unraveling of North Korea’s information blockade on its citizens and the internal instability that is causing Kim Jong-Il to worry about his son’s ascension are positive developments. However, the regime believes the medicine for its ills is aggression and this instability increases the possibility that corrupt officials will sell off weapons and expertise.
The regime is very slowly dying, but it is determined to prolong its life through destruction and confrontation. Another provocation in the near-term is certain, but its extent will be decided by the West’s reaction in the coming days.