WASHINGTON — North and South Korea’s exchange of artillery fire in a disputed maritime border area represents one of the most serious clashes between these uneasy neighbors in decades. As such, it presents the United States with a sudden and serious geopolitical challenge.
The overriding US goal is to prevent further escalation of the conflict. Serious fighting would immediately place at risk the South Korean capital of Seoul, which is within the range of long-range North Korean guns. Besides its effects on South Korea itself, conflict could endanger the 25,000 American troops deployed in the country per the US-South Korea defense pact, as well as the estimated 50,000 US civilians in the country – many of whom live in Seoul.
But US options are limited, and the Obama administration most likely needs to proceed carefully. Restraint could be interpreted as weakness by the unpredictable North Korean regime. Too much rattling of swords after the North Korean attack, on the other hand, could lead to further crisis.
Unfortunately, such tough choices are routine when it comes to dealing with the Pyongyang regime and its nascent nuclear-weapons program.
Policy on North Korea “is the land of lousy options; you’re choosing between bad, worse, and the worst,” said Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, at a Monday conference on dealing with North Korea.
The US will certainly move to condemn the act in the strongest terms, say other Korea experts. Indeed, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Tuesday called on the North to halt its “belligerent action” and said that the US remains committed to South Korea’s defense.
But neither should the US overreact, says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow and Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Instead, the administration may need to call on other nations to pressure the North to halt provocative actions. “That would really take us back to China,” Ms. Glaser says.
China’s government is North Korea’s primary financial and political patron. The US has long looked to Beijing as its best hope to exert pressure on Pyongyang to curb North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.
Tuesday’s artillery exchange, combined with recent revelations about what appears to be a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility in North Korea, may have surprised China. That might make Chinese leaders more receptive to US overtures.
“Undoubtedly, China is annoyed [with North Korea],” Glaser says.
But over the past three US administrations, America has tried virtually everything to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program and join the larger world community. Success has been limited, to put it mildly.
Tuesday’s clash centered on the small South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which is in the Yellow Sea about 75 miles west of Seoul. Yeonpyeong is near the Northern Limit Line between North and South Korea, which was established at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. The maritime border curls around islands that lie to the north of where the land border cuts across the Korean Peninsula. Since the early 1970s, the North has challenged the validity of the line, occasionally sending its ships up to or over the border.
According to South Korean officials, the latest skirmish began when the North warned the South to halt military drills in the area. The South refused and began to fire artillery shells into disputed waters, although the guns were aimed away from the North’s territory.
The North then retaliated by firing on Yeonpyeong, which houses a South Korean military post and a small civilian population.
North Korea has a long history of provocative actions, with or without some kind of spark from the other side. A 2007 report from the Congressional Research Service documented dozens of such acts, ranging from infiltration of armed agents into the South to assassination of South Korean cabinet officers and continued low-level naval warfare.
Earlier this year, the South Korean Cheonan warship was sunk near the disputed naval border, with extensive loss of life. It is highly probable that the ship was struck by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine, according to US and South Korean analysts.
According to a prescient report issued earlier this month by the Council on Foreign Relations, the chances of military escalation along the North-South Korean border have been heightened recently for a number of reasons.
First, an atmosphere of recrimination and mistrust covers the region in the wake of the Cheonan incident. South Korea is under pressure from conservative elements within its own military to respond more forcefully to provocations from the North. Accordingly, rules of engagement have been loosened since the Cheonan sank.
“Until a prolonged period of calm returns, the risk of another deadly clash between North Korea and South Korea remains real,” writes Paul Stares, a senior fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, in the report.
Second, North Korea may feel that provocations could win it some diplomatic breathing room, writes Mr. Stares. Recent economic sanctions have begun to cause some domestic distress for the Pyongyang regime. Firing off some artillery shells might cause the US and the South to back off, and might win greater support from the North’s primary supporter, China, in this view.
Third, North Korea remains embroiled in a leadership succession, and Kim Jong-un, the son of current leader Kim Jong-il and the choice to run the regime after his father passes from the scene, may feel the need to demonstrate his toughness to North Korea’s military.
For these reasons, the current state of diplomatic relations in the region is highly volatile. The North – and the South and its ally the US – could touch off conflict with a simple misstep.
“Although everyone concerned wants to prevent a major outbreak of hostilities – South Korea fears losing its hard-won prosperity and a much weaker North knows that another war would almost certainly result in its demise – the potential for miscalculation, misunderstanding, and unintended escalation cannot be dismissed,” writes Stares.