North Korea refrained Monday from retaliating against South Korean military exercises in disputed waters, assuaging fears that hostilities between the two neighbors were on the point of spiraling out of control.
That threat has not disappeared however, cautions one expert. Pyongyang had threatened an “unpredictable self-defense blow” if South Korea’s drills went ahead, points out Brian Myers, who teaches international relations at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. “So theoretically … the door is still open for them to retaliate further down the road,” he warns.
South Korean soldiers stationed on Yeonpyeong Island staged a 90-minute artillery drill on Monday afternoon, firing shells away from the North Korean mainland and into the sea, as island residents took shelter in bombproof bunkers and South Korean fighter jets flew overhead.
A similar exercise a month ago provoked a North Korean barrage that killed two civilians and two soldiers on the island. The North Korean government had warned that if Monday’s drill was carried out, its response would be “deadlier” this time “in terms of the power and range of the strike.”
In return, Seoul had threatened air strikes if North Korea fired any more shells at its territory. The government went ahead with the war games, despite pleas from Beijing and Moscow to call them off, because “it did not want to be seen to be bullied,” explains Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister.
“If each North Korean threat tied our hands, we would become hostage to their threats,” Mr. Han says.
The drills were designed “to demonstrate their [South Korean] resolve and try to restore deterrence,” adds Daniel Pinkston, an analyst in Seoul with the International Crisis Group think tank. “It was mostly a political signal.”
Pyongyang decided not to answer that signal Monday, suggests Professor Myers, because the secretive regime, widely blamed for sparking the current crisis, “realized they could probably get at least an international propaganda advantage out of not retaliating … to show the rest of the world they are not the hostile ones.”
The North's Army Supreme Command stated Monday, "The revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK did not feel any need to retaliate against every despicable military provocation like one taking revenge after facing a blow," according to a statement quoted by the official KCNA news agency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is also loath to risk any chance of a full-scale war that the North would undoubtedly lose, destroying his country and his son’s prospects of taking power there, argues David Kang, head of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California.
“We are in a new cold war on the Korean peninsula,” Professor Kang says. “There will be name calling, threats, and posturing” on both sides, “and even some shooting,” he predicts. “But I would be surprised to see a major military mobilization or the start of a second Korean War.”
North Korea does not recognize its maritime border with the South, which was drawn by the United Nations at the conclusion of the Korean War, which ended with an armistice, not a formal peace treaty. The North claims both the island of Yeonpyeong and the waters where the shells landed during Seoul's exercises. There have been several naval skirmishes near the boundary, known as the Northern Limit Line, in recent years.
“They have been shooting at each other for 60 years,” Kang points out, “but that has never led to major mobilization. Both sides know that if that happened, they would be rolling the dice with their own existence. So they are very careful not to challenge the fundamental balance of power on the peninsula.”