Thoughts on North Korea’s Shelling of Yeonpyeong-Do (Updated: Video, President Lee Calls for Retaliation)

y2.jpgSince I served in Korea years ago, I’ve feared that North Korea would try a limited artillery strike as a way to raise the stakes. It looks like my fears have been realized:

South Korea says two marines have been killed and 16 others injured in a North Korean bombardment of a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed western sea border. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday that it returned fire and scrambled fighter jets in response. It said the “inhumane” attack on civilian areas violated the 1953 armistice halting the Korean War. [AP, Kwang-Tae Kim]

Since North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan and killed 46 members of her crew, I’ve struggled with the question of restoring the deterrence that clearly hasn’t existed since then (and I wonder how the South’s Fifth Column will try to deny North Korea’s culpability this time, though you can be sure they will try). There has to come a point where a provocation draws a consequence, including a military consequence. By any reasonable standard, we reached that point last March, and we’ve reached it again today.

The thing is, though, it’s not really deterrence unless the consequence you threaten is something someone is afraid you’ll do, and a limited war may be just what the Kim Dynasty wants right now. The North Korean people are increasingly restive, and they’ve never been more economically independent. Nationalism may be the only message the regime can broadcast that the North Korean people are still listening to. The regime may be desperate to change the subject from how much everyone hates Kim Jong Eun to the topic of foreign enemies, thus to reconsolidate its fraying domestic control. So if we finally opt for a military response, it had better be something determined enough to really reduce the threat. That would mean taking out the “Y-sites” and other artillery emplacements, and as many of its short-to-medium range ballistic missiles as we can find.

ym2.jpg ym1.jpg

Not ready for that? Then we’re back to dealing with the “root cause” of the problem — the regime itself. And that’s not going to provide us any quick gratification. As a deterrent, it’s not so easy to calibrate. (For new readers, I’ve written much more extensively about how to overthrow the Kim Dynasty here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)



Here’s a little something to consider, however — before the G-20 summit, South Korea threatened an all-out propaganda war if the North did anything to ruin it. Despite North Korea’s ongoing desire to terrorize and extort the South, the G-20 passed without incident. Was the South Korean threat the kind of deterrence that the military, including USFK, has ceased to be? It’s something to think about. (I continue to think the South Koreans are aren’t even talking about going about this the right way. Forget the silly signboards and music videos at the DMZ. The single most effective thing South Korea could do to weaken the regime’s control over the North Korean population is to broadcast a signal that would give ordinary North Koreans international and domestic cell phone service. Just let them talk, and hear . . . and trade, smuggle, grumble, plot, and conspire. I’ve done some research and spoken to a technical expert. This could actually be done from South Korean territory.)

Finally, China must be held jointly responsible for this incident. Its shielding of North Korea from the consequences of the Cheonan Incident emboldened and encouraged this provocation. China will want to do the same this time, and that will encourage the next escalation. Already, I see a shift in the thinking in D.C. on China. People who had inclined to seeing China as a “strategic partner” have come to see it as a slightly unethical rival. Those who held the latter view now see it as an enemy. The latter group is about to get bigger. It’s about time it did. We now find ourselves in need not only for a way to deter North Korea, but also a way to deter China.

Photos: Yonhap.

Update: When I want to know how South Koreans are going to react to something, I consult with my wife focus group, since she’s always been an uncannily accurate barometer of the Korean Street. Well, my focus group hasn’t sounded this much like John Bolton since Kim Dae Jung was President. If the Koreas aren’t at war the day after tomorrow, some of the fury will subside, but the anger at and distrust of North Korea will persist for a while.

Update 2: Gateway Pundit has video:

At the end, you can hear absolute terror in the cries of the civilian population there.

We’ve also heard from President Lee Myung-Bak, a man with a disturbing tendency to mean what he says:

President Lee Myung-bak ordered his military Tuesday to punish North Korea for its artillery attacks “through action,” not just words, saying it is important to stop the communist regime from contemplating additional provocation. “The provocation this time can be regarded as an invasion of South Korean territory. In particular, indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a grave matter,” a stern-faced Lee said during a visit to the headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in central Seoul. [….]

“Reckless attacks on South Korean civilians are not tolerable, especially when South Korea is providing North Korea with humanitarian aid,” the president said. “As for such attacks on civilians, a response beyond the rule of engagement is necessary. Our military should show this through action rather than an administrative response” such as statements or talks, he added.

He did not rule out the possibility of follow-up attacks.

“Given that North Korea maintains an offensive posture, I think the Army, the Navy and the Air Force should unite and retaliate against (the North’s) provocation with multiple-fold firepower,” Lee said. “I think enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again.” [Yonhap]

A friendly reminder: we have 24,500 U.S. military personnel and tens of thousands of American civilians in South Korea.

Update 3: Here’s a statement from the White House:

Earlier today North Korea conducted an artillery attack against the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. We are in close and continuing contact with our Korean allies. The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement. The United States is firmly committed to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability.


  1. If the ROK does decide to retaliate (which I doubt they will), they will only succeed in killing hapless nK draftees about whom the Kim Family mafia cares nothing about. To truly deter the regime, we need to be prepared to strike directly at the regime and they need to be convinced that we will strike at them directly. Perhaps some video released of the new GUB-57 MOP penetrator bomb being loaded up onto a B-2 out of Guam might demonstrate our seriousness.


  2. This is something to watch.

    Since North Korea started using up its previous two best tension buttons — nuclear and ICBM tests — I started saying the next mafi-logical thing to expect them to do if they weren’t getting what they felt they needed is — blood-letting.

    This year, we’ve seen them do just that.

    The torpedoing of the warship was a return to the kind of strong provocation the North did when it has Soviet backing and before its food problem called the regime’s survival into question.

    A return to wantonly killing South Koreans most likely signifies the regime has serious doubts about its mid or short-term survival.

    I haven’t been paying attention much to the North for some time since I returned to South Korea. This event makes me want to know what the food situation is in North Korea going into this winter and how bad Kim Jong-Il’s health is – as well as signs of significant unrest inside NK…

    The fact the North targets that island makes me think the regime is still firmly in control.

    It was a major step up in provocation – as was the sinking of the SK ship – but it was not – say – lobbing 5-10 shells into Paju or a South Korean military base near the the DMZ…

    It is – however – a much more significant provocation than a typical DMZ border skirmish involving a small group of North Korea soldiers. That would have been the kind of provocation I’d have expected to start any “new phase” of blood-letting.

    In short, this 200 something artillery shells on a small island in the disputed territory is worrisome. I think it likely means instability at the very top of the North Korean government – that the regime is worried about its survival.

    But, it is not the kind of provocation that has me packing my bags looking to flee SK…..but…..if we start to see some more bloody provocations in the next few months, it might help determine when I leave next year.

    As for predictions or whatnot for the future — if nothing happens within the next 4 to 6 months in terms of bloody provocations, I’d think the regime is not too worried. If, however, something new happens with the next couple of months, I’d start looking for them to become a regular event like we haven’t seen since maybe the 1960s, and then I’d worry a good bit.

    When it tested a nuke and ICBM back-to-back, I worried the only level up the North could use was killing South Koreans and maybe US soldiers in South Korea, and I worried that this was a big mistake on the North’s part – if you think gangster-style.

    The nuke test and ICBM are good to use as pressure, because they cause a big buzz in the world community — but also the kind of buzz that the North has come to realize gets it more material aid to help the regime survive.

    Killing South Koreans (and Americans) isn’t likely to see the same results. Not for long…

    Testing nukes and ICBMs too often does diminish their usefulness, but killing people is a big gamble and unlikely to succeed as a strategy.

    The fact the North has held off using it much since the Soviet Union collapsed is a sign that the regime understand this.

    So, the fact it is now willing to blow up warships using submarines and brazenly shell a South Korean town (on an island in a disputed area), is something to be concerned about.

    I’ll be very curious to see if follow-up attacks happen in within the next 3 months….


  3. Joshua, this move may not be the response that will really get North Korea’s attention (not like the military strikes some advocate), but nonetheless, here it is.

    [I fixed your link. Also, I wouldn’t so much characterize that as a response as a reasonable safety precaution. In today’s circumstances, you almost have to be stoned to work at Kaesong. – Joshua]


  4. Given last night’s shelling and the sinking of the Cheonan, it’s a reasonable assertion that the ROK-threat of the use of force no longer serves as a deterrent. Of course, these events serve as ideal red herrings to recently confirmed revelations of the regime’s nuclear/ballistic missile proliferation activities and uranium-enrichment capabilities. The troubling thing is how much our American diplomats, most notably Christopher Hill, ineptly enabled the regime in violating agreements while the ink was still drying.

    In any case, political warfare seems unnecessarily risky given the dismal chance of success and projected tensions it would provoke.


  5. Thanks for fixing the URL, Joshua.

    Well, I’ve wanted Kaesong closed for a while now. Point taken on the safety precaution, though.


  6. Excellent analysis of the situation, thank you Joshua Stanton.

    Japanese TV has been reporting on this non-stop. While the reporting has been calm and careful, my own focus group (my wife) of the peace-loving pacifistic Japanese street finds similar sentiments to Joshua’s Korean focus group: shower North Korea with missiles and blow the whole sorry mess of a brain-washed country away.

    There simply is no way to deal rationally with a people that have no mutual sense of values or even reality. My softer side would like to see some effort that would destroy just the North Korean leadership, but the populace really are not on the same page either, I think.

    They may be brainwashed and dirt poor, but they are also extremely dangerous and fanatic.

    Best regards, Peter Warner.
    (Nagoya, Japan.)


  7. To follow up my earlier comment, the next mafi-logical step up for NK from here is killing Americans or Japanese.

    I believe all American soldiers have been pulled off the DMZ so shooting up a guard post is not an option like it was in the past. Shooting at US military planes in international airspace near North Korea is one likely option. They already tried to copy-cat the China spy plane incident of the early 2000s. I know next to nothing about the US Navy activities in the area, so I don’t know what kind of potential for a small attack is like the North has staged against South Korean boats in the past. I do remember hearing of North Korean vessels engaging Japanese ones in the East Sea – so I am assuming the North could attempt a blood-letting against the Japanese military there…For US soldiers, there is also a potential for limited terroristic strikes near US military bases in South Korea and places where GIs hangout.


  8. I’m teaching Korean teachers. I’ll let you know what they have to say later today.

    They didn’t say much about the torpedoing of the ship a few months ago. It was mentioned briefly with a few tough words from some of the older men – but it was basically a non-event judging by how little it was discussed. (Korean teachers generally trend significantly to the left in Korea – and that has been confirmed by my time teaching them since I returned to South Korea).


  9. The Christian Science Monitor has a view from a reporter going around Seoul yesterday.

    I wouldn’t try to predict the South Korean people’s reaction. It swings and swings to extremes fairly easily, and I haven’t been paying attention to the overall mood in the country and have been isolated from meeting many people since I got back…


  10. God bless you guys. While I was asleep in my bed on California West Coast time and hadn’t a clue what was going on, you guys were busily updating this blog. I woke up this morning, read the news, and ran here.


  11. While listening to Brian Myers on the BBC (via local NPR) last night talking about Songun policy, it reminded me of the bluster of two recent KCNA editorials on Songun that now seem like foreshadowing.

    Thanks for all the updates, Joshua. I finally went to bed at 2 a.m. (9 p.m. in Korea), which would be 7 a.m. where you are. It was good to get some meaningful updates here and at The Marmot’s Hole when I got up again at 6:15.


  12. **** Trying to do a Linda Richman and Joshua imitation.

    On 10/11/2008, NK was removed from the US State Dept’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    The Obama administration refused to put them back on the list this year.

    Discuss amongst yourselves.

    [For two years I’ve been saying that and finally, finally someone gets the reference. – Joshua]


  13. I can do a pretty good Linda Richman accent if you like…..
    “The regime may be desperate to change the subject from how much everyone hates Kim Jong Eun to the topic of foreign enemies, thus to reconsolidate its fraying domestic control”

    I just watched the movie “Wag The Dog” last night before going to bed. A movie that came out in February ’97 about the current US administration trying to stage a fake war to produce partiotism and distract from another current scandal.

    Then I wake up to this news and I’m all wierded out.


  14. As always, South Korea will do nothing. The UN will mobilize an “emergency” meeting and condemn the North. Laughable.

    For once – South Korea should flex its muscle and show that there will be severe consequences if its territory is attacked. North Korea would bite its loss, knowing a full on escalation would lead to the downfall of the regime because ultimately they are no match against the high-tech South Korean military.

    Call their bluff….


  15. USinKorea: Will you be posting the comments from the Korean teachers you teach here or elsewhere? If the latter, where?


  16. The Dow dropped 142 pts today on the news of this little artillary dual. Imagine what would happen if there was all out war between the Koreas? It’s unfortunate but unless the Chinese rein them it the NORK gvt. gets to do pretty much what they want.


  17. Mike wrote:

    As always, South Korea will do nothing. The UN will mobilize an “emergency” meeting and condemn the North. Laughable.

    Mike, I’m not so sure they can get away with that. Back when the Ch’ŏnan was attacked, a low-key response might have made sense, but now we’re at the point where no response invites further retaliation. This is what they need to do.

    usinkorea, make sure the teachers you ask about this aren’t all in the same types of organizations as John Glionna’s interviewees.

    [Please tell me you don’t mean Doug Shin. I’ve known the man for seven years. He’s no leftist; he’s a NK human rights activist. – Joshua]


  18. In my opinion, despite the latest attack on innocent civilians for which the North should pay for dearly, when analyzing the situation with North Korea it can only be concluded that inaction continues to be the best action at this stage. As has been mentioned the North Korean people are angry and there’s a strong feeling of discontent over the policies and leaders of the DPRK from their own people. The Cheonan attack, the uranium enrichment revelations, and this latest attack on Yeonpyeong-do were all attempts to stabilize the regime’s hold on the country for the leadership change. If South Korea or the US were to retaliate in any way, the standard response to these types of attacks, it would only serve to embolden the government and would provide a vehicle for the regime to appeal to the ultranationalist sentiment so central to the regime’s survival. The North Korean people may dislike the regime right now, but they hate the US more and if we ever want to cause a regime collapse without substantial numbers of civilian casualties, we should, despite whatever North Korea does, continue to ignore and disengage. South Korea should take the same approach. Change in North Korea must come from within, but this change can only come as long as we don’t give the people of North Korea a reason to rally around the failing Kim regime.

    I’m not saying we can’t do anything. We can continue pursuing freezing North Korean bank accounts in other countries, South Korea can re-start a propaganda war and send South Korean radio signals into the North, and everyone can get pissed with China. The cell-phone signal idea could also be very useful. However, military retaliation or any sort of aggression would only cause the people of North Korea to rally around their government. The Kim regime is obviously desperate and desperate people do unpredictable things. But if the regime is so desperate, then completely ignoring it will most effectively hasten its collapse. North Korea can’t divert attention from the government’s failures if no retaliation or aggression ever occurs. They will just look stupid.

    Of course we can’t just let North Korea kill South Korean citizens whenever they feel like it and there is a point at which North Korea’s actions can no longer be ignored and a military response can become necessary. In this case, however, it is all or nothing – and “all” will result in thousands if not millions of deaths. The same end result, without most of the deaths and military expenditures, could be reached if the regime collapses from within. On the other hand, however, we’ve all been waiting for that for a very long time…


  19. Teacher’s response: I’ll post it here and at GI Korea’s. It won’t be extensive – just a general flavor. I’m going to try to see if they bring the topic up at the start of the classes. If not, I’ll mention it.

    we’re at the point where no response invites further [attacks]

    That’s the problem. The North needs help from the outside world to survive. It would not risk seeing a prolonged, sharp downturn in that aid unless it felt it had to.

    (If the North felt as confident about its future and security as it did back when the Soviets were backing it fully, it might do this kind of thing, but there is no way it has regained that kind of confidence in the current environment…)

    If the North believes it had to take the step up to killing South Koreans to get what it wants, in more than 1 incident within a few months of each other, both brazen attacks, then —— it is likely to kill more people in similar events —- if it does not get what it wants.

    But, I fear blood letting will not work like testing nukes and ICBMs. Killing people will probably harden the American and South Korean positions. They will probably either do nothing – including not giving aid that can be perceived as caving into terrorism – or strike back at the North.

    Either way, the North won’t get what it thinks it needs. And then what will it do?

    Basically I mean —- where can it go from here if it doesn’t get what it wants?

    There aren’t any cards left to play.

    It can only step up the usage of the big ones it has been throwing out the last two to three years.

    That isn’t good. It isn’t good in terms of the chain of events it might generate – and – it isn’t good as a possible sign of how desperate the North Korea regime feels and has been feeling for a few years.



  20. Is this primarily about the power transfer and internal opposition? Or, is it primarily about the need for material support? I’m sure it is some of both, but I have some doubts about whether this is mostly about solidifying the young Kim’s potential hold on power.

    If I remember correctly, the nuke tests and build up to ICBM and multiple nuke tests and now these killings predated the severe illness of Kim Jong-Il…

    That leads me to guess the trend of rising brinkmanship has more to do with overall conditions influencing regime survival than mostly dynastic transfer of power…


  21. That leads me to guess the trend of rising brinkmanship has more to do with overall conditions influencing regime survival than mostly dynastic transfer of power…

    Yes, usinkorea, I think you are basically right about the attack being about regime survival, broadly defined. But you seem also to be trying to call regime survival and Kim Jong Eun’s progression towards power different things, whereas I think they are, to all intents and purposes, the same. Therefore, what we are debating here is not material, it is semantic.

    I agree with all the people who have written that the Kim Jong Eun issue is called up as a talking point in the media in far too many instances these days where it is really not needed. Where once one might have written “the regime is feeling the pressure” one is now seemingly obliged to write “the regime is feeling the pressure as it seeks to cement Kim Jong Eun’s hold on power”.

    But that is just lazy journalism, actually, and has nothing to do with the core of the debate. If one says North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island to shore up its domestic situation, is that different from shelling Yeonpyeong Island to shore up its domestic situation as it faces the third generation transition of power? No, it is not.


  22. Just found
    this diagram of the battle.

    There are a few interesting points that I noticed:

    1. The firing started with 76mm from Mudo(?) at the limit of its 12km range. The South was firing 155mm K-9’s, which are modern mobile howitzers with 40km range, and probably much better accuracy and firing rate.

    2. After 36 minutes a battery of 130mm and 76mm took over, from Gaemori.

    3. The North stopped firing within one minute of jets arriving.

    Why the North started with much smaller pieces is beyond me.


  23. The reaction from my students:

    Around 40 Korean teachers – elementary and secondary. Ages range from mid-20s to early 50s. More women than men.

    They are not angry. Nobody expressed what you could call anger. They were worried but not in a heightened manner. The best way you could describe it is how a few of them did: Desensitized.

    1 or 2 noted that an attack on a land target and in a civilian area was something fairly new and more worrisome but not enough to generate significant fear or anger — with “significant” meaning the feeling that something/anything needed to be done about it.

    The general consensus was that this attack is primarily a cause for somewhat more concern because it is the 2nd major provocation in one year – but again – the level of concern is not enough to bother with much.

    Only a couple of the younger female teachers voiced ideas located on the far left in Korean society – wild conspiracy theories involving dastardly plans by the Korean right-wingers and/or American imperialists.

    1 older female spoke along similar lines but more anti-war and especially against how “the American government has been involved in every war in every country since the end of WWII” with the idea that all war would cease if America would stop fighting them.

    These seemed to be isolated views – not what I’d consider a significant minority among this group.

    A significant minority (possible majority) did lean more toward the Sunshine variety of pro-North sympathies: They voiced concern that maybe the South Korean military exercises did provoke the North, and they stated that the South Korean and American governments have been putting more pressure on the North over the last few years and how North Korea has no power to do much beyond provocations to assure survival…

    There was the usual distrust of anything the South Korean government had to say about such events.

    An interesting thing was that nobody spoke out against the ones who went out of their way to excuse the North or the few far left commenters. If this were back in the late 1990s, such ideas would have been debated by at least an equal number of adults in the room. Today, there were only 2 very short, minor voices heard against these minority talking points representing the pro-North Korean strain in South Korean society. Neither one said enough to be considered making a point. Both were just brief interjections showing disagreement. Which leads me to believe the 2 did not believe their views were supported enough overall in the group to make speaking out with a counter-argument strongly condemning the North worthwhile.

    Nobody spoke out either when I responded to the woman who said the US has caused every war since WWII by saying I thought the US should pull troops out of South Korea so we could avoid being drawn into a war in Korea if the North decides to attack the South on a large scale. (She eventually did get around to adding the special feature that always endears me greatly to the minority of Koreans who think like her: that American soldiers in Korea are a net good (a necessary evil) but they should just be there for peace, not war…)

    In the late 1990s, whenever I would be asked for an opinion or felt like giving it, and I said I wanted US troops to withdraw from Korea, it always met with immediate opposition – including from the people who had just been telling me how much they didn’t like US troops being in Korea… The fact my stating the opinion didn’t ruffle any feathers in the class today was interesting…

    Overall, the reaction was not really disinterest but a variation of it. There was clearly concern all around but not on a level to go anywhere…

    And again, there certainly wasn’t any noticeable anger.

    The fact I had to introduce the topic also gives a hint about how the people are reacting:

    I began the classes by asking if anybody were doing anything interesting this weekend or if they had any news to report.

    In both cases, nobody brought up the attack. I repeated the question and fielded a couple of responses about the weekend before finally asking specifically about “what happened yesterday in the news.” I talked with the other instructors to see if the attack had been discussed and who brought the topic up. Only one reported that one of the Koreans had mentioned the attack – He was a former army officer who became a teacher.

    Lastly, I ran the discussion like I used to in my hakwons days: Once the topic was established, I strictly limited the amount I talked and limited it correcting their mistakes and paraphrasing what they had said. I did not give my opinion on events until the students had run out of comments of their own.

    All of this leads me to a prediction: Within 12 months, North Korea might attack a Japanese military vessel in the East Sea/Sea of Japan.

    Killing Americans or non-Koreans is about the only level up the North can now go to try to increase international tension to the point it wants.

    If South Koreans are not hopping mad about this attack, and they aren’t, then the North isn’t going to get any increase in aid it most likely wants. The advertising of the uranium program also isn’t going to lead the US and others to cave into North Korea’s desires. Another nuke test and ICBM test can’t be counted on to get the North what it wants either. Pyongyang has quickly used up its best pressure-point cards. It has little place to go beyond more murder and especially non-South Koreans.

    Since the US has pulled soldiers away from outposts on the DMZ, it isn’t as easy to target GIs as it was in the past. The North can try shooting down a US spyplane, attacking a US ship, or a terrorist attack near a US base or area where GIs hangout, but the recent sinking of the South Korean ship by torpeodo leads me to guess that the North will do it again – this time against a Japanese target in the East Sea/Sea of Japan.


  24. usinkorea wrote:

    All of this leads me to a prediction: Within 12 months, North Korea might attack a Japanese military vessel in the East Sea/Sea of Japan.

    One of my Japanese friends told me that a lot of people in Japan are worried about that very thing.


  25. representing the pro-North Korean strain in South Korean society

    That reads too strong. It would have been better stated as —- “representing the more Sunshine-friendly strain in South Korean society…”


  26. If North Korea attaks a Japanese vessel, military or civilian, it would a turning point of the Japanese defense policy. Because of the poor handling of the Chinese fishing boat the Japanese coast guard captured, the approval rating of the Kan administration plummeted.
    The Japanese feel humiliated since the Chinese captain was released under the Chinese pressure.

    The response of the Japanese government to the Norks shelling was quick and tough this time. The government today said they will suspend the tuition subsidies to North Korean schools in Japan which was supposed to start next year. The Japanese will never tolerate another provocation by Norks or humiliation inflicted on by the Chinese.


  27. Excellent point, Joshua, about the North Koreans having taken the logic of the Cheonan incident forward. Of course you’re correct in stating that the Chinese were hardly forceful in their rebukes (if indeed they rebuked anyone privately!) of the North Koreans at that time. But I wonder if the Chinese leadership is now regretting not having been more vigorous in exposing North Korea to opprobrium of consequence after the Cheonan Incident. Then again, they might know something we don’t about the connection between the Kim Jong Un succession (which after a shockingly long period of public ambivilence about, the Chinese press has finally endorsed) and the Cheonan Incident.

    If you read Shen Dingli (frequently quoted on such things in the PRC, I believe you’ve referenced his working papers in the past) there is an obvious and open willingness among Chinese hawks/nationalists/Central Committee/PLA to use North Korea as not just a passiv “buffer” versus the American military presence in East Asia but as an active aggravator of the U.S., thus keeping the focus off of Taiwan and adding a pressure point to the American perimeter in the Pacific. Additionally, from the CCP point of view, a militarily potent and peripherally aggressive DPRK keeps the (commerce-worthy but still basically hated) Japanese on edge.

    In some ways, this strategy really worked well for the CCP in the case of the Cheonan, not least of which because they could use the response to rally the public around the red flag and bluster about American naval overreach into the Yellow Sea. In its substantial postings on the Cheonan Incident, this blog, as I recall, was focused on the need for an international inquiry, expressions of North Korean culpability, and the desire to see China turn the screws on North Korea. But in the Chinese media and in discussions among Chinese people, it is really important (I think) to note that the Cheonan Incident was but an entry point into what for the Chinese is the much bigger issue of American naval power in the Pacific. This worked in the spring and over the summer (and was covered pretty well by the paper version of Dong-A Ilbo, as I recall from a visit to Seoul in July), but it isn’t likely to be the case this time around.

    One last point on Cheonan: There is also the matter (which I have never seen explicitly addressed on One Free Korea although I would welcome a link should I have overlooked it) of the 1961 treaty between the DPRK and the PRC which, so far as I know, obligates them to mutual defense in the event of a war. As others said, including one German editorial writer via my YouTube channel (“ein Angriff an ein Kriegesschiff ist ein Kriegesakt!”), the attack on the Cheonan amounted to an act of war. But China needed to shield itself from being pinned into a predictable pattern of response; to keep everyone guessing about its intentions is entirely the point, and there is still just enough residual Maoism in the PLA to have some respect for for the North Korean brand of warfare.

    More to the point, in spite of the alliance, I think the notion that the PRC will support the North Koreans in any given situation, no matter the context, is simply incorrect, particularly if the North Koreans appear to be dancing on the edge of a broader conflict. In other words, it is fine to kill 46 South Korean sailors if it helps you stabilize your (distasteful but comprehensible) hereditary succession system, but it may not be fine to shell South Korean territory if it upsets the regional balance of power or invites a larger conflict. Of course, for all we know the North Korean leaders may be congratulating themselves for having had the self-discipline to respect the wishes of their Chinese brothers, waiting until the G-20 Summit was over first. Not all concessions are visible.

    In spite of the fact that Lee Myung Bak is not a popular man in China, there is the matter of the ROK-PRC relationship, and this triangular connection and balancing that China does between the two Koreas…Which is to say that South Korea is getting a bit of sympathy here insofar as the press is concerned.

    Here are some goodies from the Chinese media side of things:

    Photo gallery of the destruction of homes in the ROK by North Korean artillery

    Today’s Huanqiu Shibao editorial on the subject, which calls North Korea’s insecurity an understandable byproduct of the unresolved tensions of the Cold War in East Asia, but which also seems to imply that North Korea is “beyond control” and engaged in “self-deception”

    Huanqiu’s big news page on the artillery attack, featuring portraits of the two South Korean casualties;

    Some extensive photo galleries (43 pictures) (via Yonhap) of North Korean coastal artillery/defense installations;

    Photo gallery of Cuban military advisors in North Korea, yesterday?

    Video of the Nov. 23 Foreign Ministry statement, bland, unlike much of the press coverage, via Phoenix News; probably much more interesting is this 3.5 minutes of news analysis that makes clear that China does not want to get played in what is at its heart, perhaps, a North Korean ploy to ensnare the United States and extract further concessions from Obama administration in the form of grain and energy. “Their goal is negotiations with the U.S.”


  28. xyzzy,

    Perhaps the smaller guns were fired first because they were more accurate. The 76mm guns were much closer to Yeon Pyong Island than the bigger guns.

    The news reports I read seem to say the first rounds hit the ROK Marine base’s artillery and managed to disable one of the 6 K-9 155mm SP Guns the Marines had. The 6 K-9’s were the only artillery on that island that could hit back.


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