North Korea has raised the ante on the Korean Peninsula by resuming firing Thursday after lobbing around 100 rounds of artillery shells the previous day from coastal batteries into waters near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border. The shelling came only two days after Pyongyang declared a no-navigation zone straddling the disputed sea border, the first of its kind since the Korean War ended in 1953.
Experts say the North is simply trying to attract attention from the United States with a view to expediting discussion of a peace treaty, as well as seeking to boost the morale of the military and punishing South Korea for perceived threats to the regime.
◆ Attention Seeking
The North's primary aim is to secure the regime while Kim Jong-il is still alive. The North's Foreign Ministry on Jan. 11 proposed talks on a peace treaty, a matter it wants dealt with in six-party denuclearization talks. But Washington has yet to respond. In the past, the North found it easy to attract U.S. attention with such antics, but since the international community intensified sanctions in the wake of the North's second nuclear test in May last year, that is no longer working. "Pyongyang wants to stress the need for a peace treaty with provocations around the NLL, which is a product of the armistice," commented Yang Mu-jin, a professor at Kyungnam University.
In the process, North Korea may attempt to freeze out South Korea. "The North wants to talk to us only about economic cooperation matters like the Kaesong Industrial Complex and tours to Mt. Kumgang, while communicating solely with the U.S. on security issues like the nuclear problem," said Ryu Dong-ryeol, a researcher at the Police Science Institute.
Another speculation has it that the shelling was aimed at using the NLL as leverage when peace talks are held. The most important agenda in a peace treaty conference will be drawing up a permanent border including the NLL. "The North has persistently provoked the South to keep the NLL disputed, violating it 43 times in October and November 1973," a security official recalled.
◆ Boosting the Military's Morale
The North, a martial country that has elevated "military first" to a state doctrine, needs to boost the morale of its military, which suffered a blow when it was defeated in a naval skirmish in the disputed waters in November on top of perks drying up due to international sanctions and dwindling aid. "With the currency reform coupled by serious economic difficulties, the morale of the North Korean armed forces is very low," said international security ambassador Nam Joo-hong. And low military morale could harm the security of the regime.
"Given information that Gen. Kim Myung-gil, the former head of operations, has been demoted by one grade in connection with the November naval skirmish, the artillery shelling appears to have been some kind of revenge," a North Korean source speculated. Meanwhile, there is a view that the North fired artillery instead of ship-to-ship standoffs in a bid to minimize damage now that the inferior capability of the North Korean Navy has become evident.
◆ Showing Muscle to the South
When it was reported that the South is overhauling a contingency plan in case the North Korean regime collapses, the North on Jan. 15 threatened to wage "sacred war" and reported that Kim Jong-il observed a massive military exercise. Later it said it would regard South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young's remarks about possible pre-emptive attack as "a declaration of war." The shelling "is a pressure tactic against the South's continued undermining of the Kim Jong-il regime," said a researcher at a state-run think tank.