Tensions surrounding the disputed Northern Limit Line are expected to heat up later this week as the second anniversary of the Yeonpyeong Island shelling approaches. The South Korean government has not only announced plans to hold field and simulated exercises on November 23rd (the day of the attack), but will also open a memorial hall on the island the day after the anniversary.
The North has responded with typical harshly-worded articles, though in notably fewer numbers than last year. Much of this criticism accuses the Lee government of using the second anniversary as a political ploy; for example, a spokesman for the North’s “Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea” called it an “effort to recover from the shameful defeat through renewed provocations and incite confrontation among south Koreans to ensure its stay in power.” An article in the Minju Joson also said that the South’s plans sought to “create [an] environment favorable for the conservative forces’ stay in power.”
There may be some truth to the North’s claim, as these actions come on the heels of last month’s surprise visit to the island by Lee Myung Bak, which was the first visit ever made to the island by a South Korean president. While there, Lee told marines on the island that South Korea had to “protect the NLL to the death” and also claimed that the North would not provoke the South if the South’s response was “a hundred and a thousand times” stronger than the North’s provocation.”
With the presidential election around the corner, and Lee’s popularity at staggeringly low levels, the anniversary presents a chance to turn the national conversation to defense issues that are generally thought of as favorable for conservative politicians. Park Geun Hye, the conservative candidate, has matched Lee’s rhetoric by threatening to “mobilize all measures and methods at our disposal to counter from the perspective of [South Korea’s] right to self-defend,” while the two liberal candidates, Ahn Cheol Soo and Moon Jae In, have been a bit more circumspect. Ahn has called for following the “principle of proportionality” and the “principle of preventing the spread of war” as a priority, while Moon said that he would secure a “solid deterrence against North Korea to ensure that it cannot even think about launching a provocation.”
Regardless of the politics surrounding Yeonpyeong Island, the area will remain a major source of tension until the issue of the NLL is settled by both sides. The line was created unilaterally in 1953 by the United Nations Commander, following armistice negotiations that failed to establish a formal sea demarcation line (unlike the land demarcation known as the Military Demarcation Line, which is buffered on either side by the DMZ). However, North Korea did not formally dispute the NLL until 1973, when it first argued that the five islands (Paengyongdo, Taechongdo, Sochongdo, Yonpyongdo, and Udo) were in their territorial waters and any travel to and from required the North’s consent (though they did not dispute the South’s ownership of those five islands). Since then the North has set out its own demarcation line, which it calls the Chosun West Sea Demarcation Line (CWSDL). (see map below)
(Source: Wikipedia) (Key: A – Northern Limit Line, B – Chosun West Sea Demarcation Line, see footnote for further)
The North’s complaint about the NLL does have some legitimacy. The NLL was drawn without its consent or input, and a cursory look at the map above shows that it is quite unfair, being demarcated with little regard for the corresponding land border. On the other hand, the South Korean’s have their own legitimate argument as well. Given the North’s past behavior, a shift in the NLL would lead to heightened security concerns not only for troops and civilian construction workers on a military base on the Western islands (which are indisputably South Korea’s) but also more general concern for the North’s ability to operate closer to South Korea’s west coast. This is just one of the reasons the South’s military has vehemently opposed any attempt to broach the issue.
An examination of the Yeonpyeong Island shelling in 2010 shows the serious consequences of each side’s position. Most Western media at the time of the shelling uncritically accepted the South Korean government’s position that North Korea had committed an unprovoked belligerent action. Yet a contrarian take, advanced by author Tim Beal, makes an interesting case that the North could have felt provoked by the South into taking action after the South Koreans fired artillery into what the North considers its own waters. Beal points out that the North had given multiple warnings to the South that its artillery exercises were unacceptable and would have consequences, even moving its own artillery pieces into position in case it needed to respond. When the South disregarded those warnings, the North was faced with an unappealing choice: restraint that could be seen as the North relinquishing its claim to the waters, or action that could set off a major confrontation between the two. The North took a risk and fired at the South, resulting in four deaths (two soldiers and two civilians) and major damage to buildings on the island, but thankfully not resulting in a major confrontation. However, the fact that live-fire drills have been undertaken by the South in the meantime without a response from the North indicates that domestic issues, possibly related to the succession, likely played a role in the North’s reaction as well.
Though the Lee government has spoken loudly about Yeonpyeong in recent months, its actions suggest greater caution than before. Field training and simulated exercises are going forward, but there will be no live-fire exercises as there were two years ago. In addition, although possibly unrelated, military officials said Tuesday that previously planned upgrades to western island defenses would not be going forward at this time.
By contrast, the North may have sent a subtle signal to the South through the re-emergence of Kim Kyok Sik, the military commander thought to have been behind the Yeonpyeong shelling. Kim was formerly Chief of the KPA General Staff before being demoted to command of the Western Area, which includes oversight of the areas surrounding the Northern Limit Line (he has subsequently been promoted to Vice Chief of the General Staff). Though it is entirely possible that Kim’s reappearance is coincidental, it is notable that this was his first public mention in the KCNA (excluding his listing as a member of the Central Committee in September 2010) since February 2009.
The rest of the key for map, via Wikipedia
1. Yeonpyeong Island
2. Baengnyeong Island
3. Daecheong Island and Socheong Island
4. Yeongjong Island (Incheon Intl. Airport)
9. Ganghwa County
Picture by UNC – CFC – USFK
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