Two Koreas locked in cycle of eye-for-eye shows of force, reprisals

Posted on : 2022-10-20 17:05 KST Modified on : 2022-10-20 17:05 KST
Recent artillery fire by the North broke with expectations that it would refrain from drills during the Communist Party congress in China
North Korea’s KCNA released this photo of leader Kim Jong-un speaking at the Central Officers School on Oct. 18. (Yonhap)
North Korea’s KCNA released this photo of leader Kim Jong-un speaking at the Central Officers School on Oct. 18. (Yonhap)

With South Korea choosing to respond militarily to North Korea’s shows of force against it, North Korea continues to respond in kind, trapping the Korean Peninsula in a vicious cycle that could turn explosive.

Concerns are growing that the crisis on the peninsula could escalate out of control if the comprehensive inter-Korean military agreement signed Sept. 19, 2018, which was meant to prevent accidental conflict from escalating into an all-out war, loses potency.

For two consecutive days, on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, North Korea fired artillery shots into the waters off its east and west coasts.

A spokesman for the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army said in a statement on Oct. 19 that the “enemies” had “fired dozens of shells of multiple rocket launchers in the forefront area of Cholwon County, South Kangwon Province from 9:55 to 17:22 on Oct. 18.”

“The situation on the Korean peninsula is getting worse due to the enemies’ repeated military provocations in the forefront area,” the statement continued.

“The KPA General Staff took a specially serious note of the provocative moves committed at a time when ‘Hoguk 22’, the enemy’s war drill against the north, is going on in a frantic manner,” the spokesman said, adding that the artillery fire conducted by the North was meant “to send a serious warning once again.”

In response, South Korea’s military explained that the artillery drill mentioned by North Korea was not in violation of the Sept. 19 military agreement and that the drills had been continuously carried out in the past as well.

Tuesday night, North Korea fired some 250 artillery shots into the waters off its east and west coasts from Changjon in Kangwon Province and Changsan Cape, Hwanghae Province.

This latest show of force came after North Korea fired 560 artillery shells from its east and west coasts on Oct. 14. This incident was particularly noteworthy since South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the shells fell into maritime buffer zones stipulated in the Sept. 19 agreement, thus constituting a violation of the agreement by the North.

Then, at around 12:30 pm on Wednesday, North Korea fired more than 100 artillery shots into the West Sea from South Hwanghae Province. These shots also reportedly fell within a maritime buffer zone.

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies, pointed out that although North Korea continues to fire artillery shots that violate the inter-Korean military agreement, they have yet to make any mention of the actual agreement.

“Their intention is to shift responsibility and avoid criticism in case South Korea were to scrap the Sept. 19 agreement in the future,” Yang said.

In other words, by pushing South Korea to declare it will scrap the Sept. 19 military agreement first, North Korea would be able to shift responsibility onto the South for the worsening situation and be more justified in taking greater action, like local skirmishes or a seventh nuclear test.

At first, domestic and foreign experts expected that North Korea would refrain from any armed provocations during the period of the 20th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress (Oct. 16-22), during which Xi Jinping will be confirmed for a third consecutive term as president. However, provocations by the North during this time have not ceased.

Robert Manning, a distinguished senior fellow at the Stimson Center, told VOA that the goal of North Korea’s recent artillery drills is to prompt a “pseudo-crisis” and to express Kim Jong-un’s anger over the South Korea-US joint military drills.

“There may also be some frustration at pressure from China not to conduct a seventh nuclear test,” Manning said.

However, unlike ballistic missile launches, the recent artillery fire drills conducted by North Korea do not fall under the purview of the UN Security Council (UNSC). As such, these kinds of provocations likely put less pressure on China, which is a permanent member of the UNSC.

Nevertheless, experts are concerned that North Korea’s shows of force paired with South Korea’s military responses have begun a vicious cycle of raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In turn, such tensions raise the possibility of accidental clashes breaking out between the two Koreas.

In fact, with North Korean artillery shots falling in maritime buffer zones on either coast on Oct. 14, 18, and 19, a tense situation is already brewing with fighter jets from both sides confronting each other.

“With the South and the North fiercely butting heads, we are heading towards an explosive situation where anything can become a ‘fuse,’” commented Kim Chang-soo, former Blue House secretary for unification policy.

“Even if the North violates [the Sept. 19 agreement], for now, it is necessary keep a trust mechanism in place to somehow prevent a conflict between the two sides by maintaining the Sept. 19 military agreement before the situation spirals out of control,” the former secretary added.

The artillery shots fired by North Korea so far have fallen into North Korean waters without crossing the Northern Limit Line (NLL) on either coast.

If North Korean artillery shells fall beyond the NLL and into South Korean waters, however, South Korean military authorities say they will fire the same amount of artillery shots north of the NLL.

If this were to happen, the Marine Corps stationed at Baengnyeong Island would respond by firing a K9 self-propelled howitzer and joint support forces including the Army, Navy, and Air Force would go on standby.

In other words, if tensions continue to rise due to the armed rejoinders by both North and South, the possibility of an accidental military conflict breaking out between the two sides also inevitably increases.

South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup told commanders and soldiers to stand in readiness to carry out a “stern initial response in self-defense without hesitation in the event of a direct provocation from North Korea” during a visit to the Joint Chiefs’ combat control center on Sunday.

Some point out that the South Korean government should be prioritizing managing the crisis, not further escalating it.

Kim Jung-sup, current vice president of the Sejong Institute and former head of the Ministry of National Defense’s planning and coordination office, said that the North’s recent behavior “doesn’t seem like it will end with a one-off.”

“This could be a situation in which [the North] could use the South Korean and US military responses to justify a seventh nuclear test,” he said.

“We have the promise of US extended deterrence, so the government should make an effort to manage the crisis in a stable manner without overreacting,” Kim Jung-sup added.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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