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The artillery exchange on 23 November 2010 between North and South Korea will heighten tensions but will not lead to an all out war.
By John Hemmings
The images of a burning South Korean town on Yeonpyeong Island after a North Korean artillery assault were shocking to many in Seoul. With the images, came the realisation that all that stands between peace and a devastating war on the peninsula are the policies of an absolute dictator Kim Jong-il and his heir-apparent Kim Jong-un. And there is no doubt that any conflict between the two Koreas would be devastating.
With over a million North Korean men in arms, and 750,000 South Korean and US troops facing them across one of the world's most militarised borders, a war between the two could cost millions of casualties and trillions of dollars of damage. The consequences on the Asian economy, the world's fastest growing, would also be severe. Seoul's citizens watching the unfolding events on their televisions would no doubt be thinking about the proximity of their own city - South Korea's most industrious and populated -to North Korean artillery.
So what caused the exchange and what will happen next? It may come as a surprise to many in the West to learn that South Korea and its bellicose neighbour are still technically at war, given that no peace treaty was signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The armistice that was agreed remains in force, but while it keeps a sort of frozen peace, it does not deal with a number of contentious issues that remain at the forefront of North-South relations.
This includes the maritime border between the two states, over which the artillery exchange took place. In 1953, the two sides agreed to return to their pre-war positions between the 38th Parallel. While units on both sides agreed to move, in practice North Korea refused to give up the Ongjin Peninsula, which hangs menacingly over the Yellow Sea and allows naval dominance of Seoul, the Southern capitol.
In return the South maintained control over a number of islands off-shore to Ongjin Peninsula, which they maintained as 'canary-in-the-mine' advanced posts. These islands and the waters that surround them have seen a repeated number of low-level military incidents, including a number of naval battles and artillery duels. Indeed, the artillery attack on 23 November took place after the South conducted artillery test-firing of its own the previous day. While this drill was deliberately done facing away from the North Korean coast, it provided the North with a perfect excuse to express its ire over the maritime issue.
There is also speculation, rife among North Korea watchers, that the artillery incident serves other purposes for the North. There has been some talk of resuming the Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons, and this could be Pyongyang's way of bolstering its diplomatic position and assuaging perceptions of economic vulnerability before those negotiations.
Furthermore, North Korean bellicosity has the perverse impact of applying pressure on their opponent states by worrying their populations. There is also speculation that the attack was intended to establish the hard-line credentials of the heir-apparent, Kim Jong-un. At the age of 27, and with few advantages other than his family name, Kim Jong-un will need as much support from the North Korean military as possible and this attack might have been 'led' by the young man in all but name. It stands to reason that by carrying out these pin-prick attacks on South Korea's forces, without thought of repercussions, the regime is able to gain support amongst hard-line military leaders in the army. Based on Soviet lines, the military still sees its primary function as restoring the unity of the country by force. While the army is unlikely to start another full-scale war, attacks like this reassure the military that the regime will not give up the idea of unifying Korea.
Given all this, it is not likely that the conflict will continue. Despite heated rhetoric and media speculation, it is likely that the North and South will take pains to control their military units in the area. While both sides will continue to bluster about responsibility of the event, neither will be willing to take it to the next level.
Like two estranged brothers sharing the same life raft, they will make bellicose noises, while each seeking for an acceptable face-saving way out. For China and the United States, national interests are at stake: neither will seek to escalate the conflict. To some extent, both fear another war and both fear an untimely collapse of the North since these would have dire humanitarian and security consequences. Furthermore, both states eye any conflict on the peninsula wearily, since the impact on the regional economy could be severe. Asia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and South Korea is the world's eleventh largest economy with major trade going to China, the US, and Japan.
It is clear, that whatever happens, conflict on the Korean Peninsula will continue to bubble along. Until there is a serious attempt to resolve the nuclear issue, there will be no peace treaty. As long as there is no peace treaty, this pattern of small-scale conflict over the maritime border will continue.
*The views expressed in this article are not the views of RUSI but the views of the author*