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Upping the ante: nuclear North Korea’s muscular new stance

By Benjamin Habib - posted Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The exchange of shell fire between North and South Korea is symptomatic of the tense new dynamic on the Korean peninsula, stemming from the North’s muscular new stance as a nuclear weapons power. This comes only months after the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, another serious provocation widely blamed on Pyongyang.

Reports suggest that the North’s artillery volley at South Korean-held Yeonpyeong Island was retaliation against South Korean live-fire naval exercises in waters near the disputed Northern Limit Line maritime boundary. The North views these annual naval drills as a dangerous provocation, which was reportedly the message of a fax sent to Seoul earlier in the day warning of a military response if the drills were not cancelled.

North Korea is no stranger to dangerous provocations of its own. Pyongyang has regularly presaged participation in nonproliferation negotiations with simultaneous calculated military provocations, to increase its bargaining advantage in order to extort international aid as the price for crisis de-escalation. Pyongyang may have used the Yeonpyeong confrontation, along with the earlier Cheonan attack, to engineer a coercive bargaining dynamic in order.


International largesse is critical for North Korea, a country whose regime pursues a nominal policy of self-reliance despite deficiencies in its agricultural production capacity and industrial base, food and energy shortages, and limited trade linkages with the international economy. The North obtained agricultural, industrial and energy inputs from the communist bloc prior to 1991; it has been a ward of the international community ever since.

Bearing this in mind, a possible restart of the Six Party Talks may be the raison d’être for the Yeonpyeong incident. North Korea expressed some willingness to return to the Six Party Talks during the opening months of 2010. According to Pyongyang’s official mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, the North’s participation would be conditional on the lifting of economic sanctions and negotiations for an official peace treaty to replace the 1953 Korean War armistice agreement. With a resumption of negotiations pending, the North may have resorted to old form, a scenario entirely consistent with past North Korean negotiating behaviour.

The Yeonpyeong incident represents a dangerous new phase of the coercive bargaining game, in which Pyongyang is engaging in more ever more extreme provocations to extract international largesse, confident that its nuclear weapons capability will deter military retaliation from South Korea and the United States. Recent unconfirmed North Korean declarations about new highly-enriched uranium facilities are consistent with Pyongyang’s increasing nuclear bravado.

The South Korean government’s muted response to the Cheonan sinking in March may have done little to dissuade Pyongyang of the utility of coercive bargaining. War is the last thing Seoul wants. The South Korean government is unwilling, for good reason, to risk its economic miracle on another fratricidal war. Strategically, the South Korean capital is a hostage to a North Korean artillery and rocket assault, given its close proximity to the demilitarised zone at the north-south border.

Diplomatically, South Korea is caught in a balancing act between its security guarantor, the United States, and its largest trading partner in China. Seoul fears having to choose between Washington and Beijing, yet its major security problems inevitably incur the risk of alienating one or the other. North Korea’s confrontational behaviour over the past year has dramatically complicated this balancing act. How Seoul responds to this latest altercation could set the tone for the North-South relationship for the foreseeable future.

Developments within North Korea are the wildcard. Like the Cheonan attack, the Yeonpyeong confrontation could be a sign of instability within the regime leadership. Kim Jong-il may have engineered this new external crisis as a means to bolster his succession plan. Such bold provocations may be necessary to secure institutional support for his son and anointed successor, Kim Jong-un, in the absence of a long grooming period in which Kim Jong-un could cultivate a support base within the military and the Party.


Kim Jong-un’s inclusion in official state delegations and insertion into important institutional posts may be part of an accelerated grooming program, given urgency by Kim Jong-il’s questionable health. Reports earlier in the year suggest Kim Jong-un himself may have ordered the Cheonan attack to prove his mettle as a figure worthy of the top echelons of power. While it is too early to tell, succession politics may have played a role in the Yeonpyeong incident as well.

The international community drew its breath after the Kim regime’s second nuclear test in 2009, wondering if a nuclear-armed North Korea would be a measured regional actor. While the likelihood of North Korea launching a nuclear attack remains remote, Pyongyang continues to up the ante with risky pin-pricks against the South. With this latest provocation at Yeonpyeong, an answer to that question is beginning to crystallise.

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About the Author

Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga.

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