North and South Korea engaged in a little sabre rattling today, firing hundreds of artillery shells into each other’s territorial waters along the so-called Northern Limit Line (NLL), the naval extension of the DMZ. Details from the AP, via ABC News:
“[The DPRK] and South Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells into each other’s waters Monday in a flare-up of animosity that forced residents of five front-line South Korean islands to evacuate to shelters for several hours, South Korean officials said.
The exchange of fire into the Yellow Sea followed Pyongyang’s sudden announcement that it would conduct live-fire drills in seven areas north of the Koreas’ disputed maritime boundary. North Korea routinely test-fires artillery and missiles into the ocean but rarely discloses those plans in advance. The announcement was seen as an expression of Pyongyang’s frustration at making little progress in its recent push to win outside aid.
North Korea fired 500 rounds of artillery shells over more than three hours, about 100 of which fell south of the sea boundary, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said. South Korea responded by firing 300 shells into North Korean waters, he said.
No shells from either side were fired at any land or military installations, but Kim called the North’s artillery firing a provocation aimed at testing Seoul’s security posture. There was no immediate comment from North Korea.”
By recent standards, today’s barrage was rather mild. Four years ago this month, a ROK navy vessel sank after being struck by a North Korean torpedo, killing 46 sailors. And later that year, North Korean artillery shelled a South Korean island along the NLL, leaving four civilians dead. Since then, Pyongyang has unleashed numerous propaganda blasts and conducted several missile launches, often in protest to exercises staged by Seoul and the United States. North Korea usually describes those drills–which have been going on for years–as “preparations for an invasion.”
While the media dutifully reports those statements, other facts are often omitted. For starters, the scribes at AP apparently didn’t check their calendar. It’s the end of March, which means the North Korean military’s annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC) is coming to a close. Readiness and training levels rise steadily over a four-month period, which begins at the end of November. The WTC typically culminates in a “national defense exercise” which sometimes ends with a provocative event, such as today’s artillery barrage. In that sense, the sudden hail of shells was not unexpected.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any press reporting on the WTC–this year, or any other year. Maybe it’s because the winter training period is an annual event, or the fact the overall pace and intensity of the drills has been in a decline for many years–a reflection of Pyongyang’s failed economy. Or maybe there aren’t enough “defense reporters” in the press corps who know enough about Korea to even pose the question.
Likewise, today’s response from Seoul was equally predictable. The incidents in 2010 embarrassed the ROK military, which is far more modern than its DPRK counterpart. There’s an unwritten policy at the Blue House and the South Korean MOD that provocations like the artillery barrage will not go unanswered. So, when Kim Jong-un’s minions pumped 100 shells into South Korea waters, they got 300 in return, even if the rounds were aimed at the open sea, and the only casualties were fish.
But perhaps the most unusual aspect of today’s artillery “duel” was a sudden case of courtesy from the north. According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, the ROK Navy’s 2nd Fleet received a fax from the North Korean counterparts at 8 a.m. (local time), announcing plans for a live-fire exercise and demanding that the south remove its vessels from the area. North Korea has been sniffing around for additional aid in recent weeks, so (apparently) someone in Pyongyang decided an unannounced artillery barrage wouldn’t help them get more food–or money–from South Korea, or anyone else.
If history is any indicator, North Korea will be back to its usual tricks in no time. If the DPRK doesn’t get its way, more missile drills–or even another nuclear test–may be in the offing, though preparations for such a test have not been detected. There is also the chance of more trouble along the NLL. The lucrative crab fishing season starts in a couple of months, and both sides send naval vessels to protect their fleets. Under those conditions, it only takes an aggressive skipper (or some sort of preplanned event from the north), and the shooting will start anew.
If it’s any consolation, the threat of conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula actually decreases during the warmer months (and yes, we’re aware that the war that started everything began in June, 1950). With the start of spring, DPRK military units spend most of their time engaged in “agricultural activities,” intel community jargon for growing their own food. Without that time in the fields and rice paddies, a lot of North Korean soldiers would starve in the winter, so agriculture takes precedence over military training from April through September. Readiness levels plummet during the summer time, though Pyongyang retains enough capability to stage whatever provocation it deems necessary.
Such attention-grabbing stunts were perfected during the reign of Kim Jong-il, and they have continued under Kim Jong-un. Having purged and executed dozens of older officials last year (including his aunt and uncle), Mr. Kim has appointed his 27-year-old sister, Kim Yo-jung, as chief of staff. In fairness, she’s just as qualified as her brother when he inherited the reigns of power, which is to say she’s completely unqualified for her post.
But in the Worker’s Paradise, DNA means more than competence, so the rhetoric and actions from Pyongyang may be even incoherent in the future. From the American perspective few things could be more troubling. The next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may have a real problem on the Korean peninsula, since the new generation of Kims have grown accustomed to doing what they please, with little to fear from Washington.