Was Inter-Korean Skirmish a Deliberate Provocation?

      November 11, 2009 11:39

      Tuesday's incursion into South Korean waters that resulted in a brief gunbattle was "an intentional, low-intensity provocation by North Korea," Cheong Wa Dae believes. An official said if the North Korean vessel had accidentally trespassed, "it would have retreated after being warned by our vessels. We can't view the incident as an accident since a North Korean vessel fired 50 rounds at our ship for the first time in seven years."

      The incursion in the West Sea was "a deliberately planned maneuver designed to look like an accident," according to Nam Joo-hong at Kyonggi University, since the 134 ton vessel breached maritime barriers and came so far down south, and that Pyongyang is demanding an apology from Seoul.

      But Yang Mu-jin at Kyungnam University of North Korean Studies, said, "There was only one North Korean vessel involved and there was no prior actions taken by the North to raise tensions," suggesting that the incursion "was an accident that escalated into a clash under the rigid operational circumstances of the South Korean military."

      The North Korean military claims it did not act intentionally. It says when the patrol boat had already turned back, the South Korean forces chased it and fired.

      ◆ Provocation

      Analysts say a provocation would make sense in the current political climate, where North Korea may see profit in escalating tension. With direct nuclear talks with the U.S. in the offing, heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula would only help the North get what it wants. Experts say North Korea may be sending Washington a message ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to South Korea on Nov. 18-19 that military tensions continue on the peninsula.

      North Korea wants to hold talks with South Korea as well while warning that it is still a force to reckon with. "Through various channels, North Korea has recently been demanding humanitarian assistance and expanded economic exchanges," a government official said. "The latest provocation can be viewed as an expression of North Korea's dissatisfaction with the South and also a message that it should not be treated lightly despite its needy situation."

      Grand National Party lawmaker Jin Young of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, agreed. "North Korea trespassed the Northern Limit Line 24 times last year and already 40 times this year," he said. "The latest provocation appears designed to gain the upper hand in negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea."

      ◆ Future Implications

      Experts said, "Dialogue with the U.S. and relations with South Korea depend on how North Korea responds to the damage it suffered." If the North Korean gunboat suffered heavy casualties, inter-Korean relations could grow icy over the short term. The Defense Ministry says it has not detected any additional movements in North Korea so far, but one analyst with a state-run think tank expects more provocations.

      Other analysts voiced fears that North Korea might use the latest clash as an excuse to ostracize South Korea while engaging in dialogue with the U.S. But for now, North Korea is not expected to "turn the tables," according to Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University. Baek Seung-joo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said, "North Korea's tactic is to resort to provocation and then create a dramatic opportunity for talks to improve relations with South Korea or the U.S."

      The two Koreas held their first summit in 2000, a year after the first inter-Korean naval battle in the West Sea, and the North sent 300 cheerleaders to the Asian Games in Busan in June 2002, three months after the second naval battle.

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