North and South Korea exchanged fire today in the most serious outbreak of violence along their border since 2010. Both countries fired hundreds of shells into the water along the contested demarcation line; South Korean residents were evacuated from nearby islands and ferry service to the area was halted as tensions soared.
“This is a premeditated provocation to test our will to defend the maritime border,” said Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. “If the North provokes again using our response today as an excuse, we will act decisively.”
Kim’s concern over a tit-for-tat escalation is not unwarranted. Yesterday, North Korea proclaimed it would be conducting more weapons testing in response to condemnation by the UN Security Council for testing ballistic missiles last Wednesday. Today, the North Korean military made good on their threat and conducted a drill sending about 500 shells into the Yellow Sea. When the shells began to fall south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), Seoul immediately responded with shells of their own.
South Korea and the United Nations recognize the NLL as the official boundary between the two nations, but North Korea “claims a line farther south.” Because the Korean War of 1950-1953 ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, the peninsula remains in a technical state of war; to this day, about 28,500 American troops are stationed there to help protect the democratic South from the communist North.
While the past decade has seen three underground nuclear tests and a number of smaller military displays from North Korea – including the killing of four South Koreans near the border in 2010 – the past few months have been relatively quiet. The two countries had even conducted negotiations recently regarding family reunions across the border, a discussion that North Korea often wields as a bargaining chip to secure international aid.
The response of the international community – or lack thereof – to Pyongyang’s weapons testing may be one reason for the sudden escalation in aggressive military action. “Pyongyang prefers to strike when it sees Washington as weak or distracted, beset by bigger problems,” Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said, referring to the North’s capital.
Another reason could be nationalistic fervor in advance of the anniversary of North Korea’s military and the birthday of Kim Jong-il’s grandfather, both occurring in April. According to Choe Sang-Hun for the New York Times, “The regime traditionally uses such events to bolster internal solidarity, sometimes with the aid of missile and nuclear tests and other provocations.”
While Pyongyang has recently threatened to test its nuclear capabilities, Seoul believes that the “imminent” future will bring only non-nuclear challenges from its neighbor to the north.