- November 29, 2010
News of the artillery exchange between the two Koreas came as a shock. The world deplored the loss of life and is seriously concerned about further developments. It is important both to understand the reasons for the hostilities and to ensure they do not recur.
As far as we can tell, the ROK fired the first shots into disputed waters, disregarding earlier warnings from the DPRK, and the latter then "retaliated". This seems to have been the sequence of events.
For long time, the two Koreas have dreamed of unification. But they differ profoundly on the terms under which unification will be accomplished. The 1953 armistice ended open warfare, but half a century later neither a permanent peace, nor even a clear demarcation of territory, including territorial waters, has been agreed. This has sowed the seeds of discord, and armed conflict is prone to erupt at any time, either intentionally or unintentionally.
If both sides restrict themselves to insisting on their respective claims to these troubled waters the worst that can happen is a wave of antagonistic rhetoric – bad enough, but falling short of military confrontation. But if either side actively asserts its claim by force, it risks provoking serious military conflict.
This was clearly what happened this time, as on many previous occasions. Obviously the ROK side has the right to stage military exercises on its own territory. And if the area where the ROK's shells fell had been indisputably a part of Seoul's territory, it would have provoked no hostile response from the other side. But given that the ROK and DPRK have been in dispute over the waters for decades, and the DPRK had already warned of the consequences of ROK artillery fire in the area, it was rather unwise to proceed.
By firing into DPRK territory, the ROK armed forces on the Yeonpyeong Island tested, unnecessarily if not provocatively, the credibility of the DPRK's deterrence. Since the ROK was not in a position to defend against the shelling, it begs the question why it chose to play such a dangerous game. Firing shells into disputed waters is not something to be done lightly, and testing the DPRK's stomach for a fight is reckless.
Having said this, "retaliating" against islanders, rather than firing into ROK waters, was far more than was necessary. After all, the ROK barrage only endangered marine life on the DPRK side. But the DPRK seemed to deliberately strike against human lives, which was completely excessive, disproportionate, and outrageous.
Even allowing that the ROK ignored the DPRK's warnings and infringed Pyongyang's sovereignty, the ROK at most caused some damage to marine life. If the DPRK felt it had to teach the ROK a lesson, it would have made sense to retaliate in kind by destroying marine life in ROK waters.
Striking against people on Yeonpyeong Island was an overreaction. Although the ROK failed to heed the DPRK's warnings, it hurt no human beings in the North. But the DRPK's artillery barrage claimed the lives of several people. This is why the DPRK action has been so widely condemned.
Presently, it is imperative that all stakeholders exercise restraint so as to avoid escalation of the crisis. It is important, first, to determine the cause of the artillery exchange, and then to craft a system that will free the two Koreas of the threat of such incidents in the future.
Drawing lessons from the Cheonan incident, it is of the utmost importance to launch an authoritative international investigation, in which all stakeholders are engaged. The ideal platform for authorizing and organizing the investigation is the United Nations. Rather than was the case with the Cheonan, when China was either not invited or was unwilling to join the investigation, it would be desirable for Beijing and others to work together to establish the cause of the artillery exchange.
A multilateral investigation will lend credibility to international mediation of the dispute. Based on the discovery or confirmation of the cause of the crisis, it is necessary to convene a dialogue between the two Koreas to define their future rules of engagement at sea. The two sides should clarify the scope of their disputes over sovereign waters, and apply the notion of land-based demilitarized zones to the sea as well, i.e., the two sides should not enter the zone or carry out any hostile actions in the zone. Such an arrangement would minimize the risk of conflict and provide time and space for the building of institutional arrangements to forge long-lasting peace on the peninsula.
It is worth emphasizing that, even if either party violated the agreed code, the other party should exercise maximum restraint and never respond excessively. They should resort to the UN Security Council to settle the dispute before responding directly. In the case of the current exchange of fire, this would mean that even if the UNSC had done nothing, the DPRK ought to have responded by firing into the sovereign waters of the ROK, rather than bringing death to the inhabitants of the island.
Under extreme conditions, the two Koreas need to find mechanisms to communicate their concerns on urgent basis. They need to set up confidence building measures, to allow direct cross-border talks between military officers, and to allow direct hot-line communication between the two leaderships.
While the lessons of these recurring crises need to be drawn, it is also necessary to understand what drove the DPRK to respond excessively. There has been speculation that some high-handed performance was necessary to ensure the domestic legitimacy of the leadership succession process. The recent revelation of its uranium enrichment capacity seems to indicate a hardening of Pyongyang's line on nuclear development. Though the world community might wish this assessment is unnecessarily pessimistic, the North's handling of the incident is surely pushing the resumption of the Sixth Party Talks further into an uncertain future.
In the wake of the artillery exchange, it was announced that the aircraft carrier USS George Washington is to stage a joint naval drill with the ROK in the west sea off the Korean Peninsula. While this may rekindle Chinese antipathy to American gunboat diplomacy, Washington and Beijing need to handle this with caution. The U.S. needs to understand that the ROK made mistakes in this incident by shooting first into disputed waters. Though America has to stand by its ally, it should not back irresponsible provocations by any parties, including the ROK. Understanding this will lay the basis for working with other stakeholders in the region on an equitable basis.
The U.S. should also maximize cooperation with China, rather than narrowing the space for such cooperation. China is wary of external powers wielding military force in the region, and has especially warned America not to step into its exclusive economic zone militarily without prior consent. As the Yellow Sea is only some 400 nautical miles wide, the U.S. and ROK should demonstrate sensitivity so as to foster a collaborative settlement of the incident.
Northeast Asia and the world are increasingly apprehensive of a resumption of military incidents on the Korean Peninsula and the seas adjacent to it. Though matters currently seem under control, such incidents pose a threat to the stability of the region. Responsible stakeholders should work together to ease tension, and put in place mechanisms to minimize the chances of a rerun of such dangerous episodes.