[Viewpoint] Decoding the Yellow Sea clash

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[Viewpoint] Decoding the Yellow Sea clash

North Korea provoked the South by opening fire on a South Korean vessel. The South Korean Navy responded according to the rules of engagement and drove the North Korean patrol boat back.

Once again, the Yellow Sea has become a place of conflict between North and South. Pyongyang’s repeated provocations there demonstrate North Korean gunboat diplomacy, or the strategy of displaying military power to attain foreign policy objectives.

The provocation of the North Korean patrol boat in the Yellow Sea addresses both domestic political objectives and foreign policy goals for the North.

Who would be most reassured by the skirmish, which took place when inter-Korean and North-U.S. tensions had been warming after a long period of friction following aggressive South Korean policies and the North’s second nuclear test?

The answer: North Korean residents and government officials probably found the situation most comforting. They believed that their Dear Leader could never make a mistake, but as they witness relations turning toward dialogue, they could be psychologically disturbed.

The North Korean authorities must have desperately felt the necessity to provide a political turning point to prevent psychological disturbance among North Korean residents and officials. North Korea has a history of elevating tension to reset the mood with naval provocations in the Yellow Sea, the first in 1999 before the first summit meeting and again in June, with another in 2002 before sending the cheerleading squad to the Busan Asian Games. Since North Korea is headed by the same leadership, they seem to be repeating the same tactic to bring about a change in the situation.

In terms of foreign policy, North Korea will soon have the direct dialogue with Washington it has been looking forward to since the second nuclear test.

When Kim Jong-il met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the North Korean leader declared that Pyongyang would come back to the six-party talks depending on progress in North Korea-U.S. relations. Therefore, the North is likely to decide to participate in the six-party talks again following dialogue with Washington.

However, the North Korean authorities openly stated their intention never to be part of the six-party talks again after the second nuclear test. North Korean government officials must be quite confused, although they would not openly criticize Kim Jong-il, at Pyongyang’s decision to reverse the political declaration made to citizens, officials and the international community.

The North Korean authorities are in a desperate situation, eager to display the correct spirit going into the meetings but nervous about appearing servile.

By firing at a South Korean vessel, Pyongyang wanted to keep North Korean citizens on military alert and convey a political message to its government officials - that it would deal with Washington on its own terms.

You might wonder whether Pyongyang will do more damage to the South Korean Navy by mobilizing more warships and firepower. But the North Korean Navy has learned from the previous two clashes by comparing the fighting power of the countries’ naval patrol boats.

They know too well that any provocation that causes more damage would not work. According to a North Korean defector who was once a military officer, the North Korean leader was quite shocked by the results of the first Yeonpyeong clash in 1999. Therefore, Pyongyang seems to have resorted to low-intensity provocations to foment tension, with a small-scale attack rather than an all-out clash.

How should we respond to North Korea’s gunboat diplomacy? Originally, gunboat diplomacy was a foreign policy tactic used by a more powerful country against a smaller nation, not the other way around. Diplomatic texts define gunboat diplomacy as a policy that does not work on superior powers.

And there are principles and correct responses to gunboat diplomacy. We can render North Korea’s gunboat diplomacy useless by instituting such complete military readiness that such a provocation would be all but unthinkable.

The South Korean Navy responded admirably and promptly based on the rules of engagement. When Pyongyang’s intent is so controversial, we need to respect the judgment of our military.

*The writer is the director of the Security and Strategy Research Center at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Baek Seung-joo
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