Fire Fight at Yeonpyeong: The Manufacturing of Crisis

Summary of Pyongyang Report V12, N1, December 2010

The artillery clash between North and South Korea around the Island of Yeonpyeong on 23 November has been portrayed as an unprovoked attack by the North which involved indiscriminate fire on a civilian area. The reality is very different,. This reality can only be reached through a careful reading of the public reports combined with an understanding of the context.

The public record shows that far from being unexpected and unprovoked, the North had issued a number of warnings, including a telephone call to the local commander, saying that the proposed live fire exercise would be considered an intolerable provocation because the shells would fall in the North’s territorial waters, and that they would launch ‘a resolute physical counter-strike’ if it went ahead. The warnings were disregarded and the North shelled the large marine base on the island, killing two soldiers and injuring several. Two civilians were also killed and has been reported that there were working on a construction site on the base. It is not known how many were killed or wounded in the South’s counter-offensive on the North.

The Yeonpyeong clash happened at the time South Korea, with American support, was carrying out yet another huge military exercise practising war against the North, including marine amphibious assaults. These military exercises, which have been a feature of the Korean peninsula for decades, have been growing in strength and scope this year, and are part of conservative South Korea President Lee Myung-bak’s strategy of precipitating a crisis that will bring about the collapse of North Korea and its takeover by the South. To counter this, the North has a ‘zero-tolerance’ strategy whereby any attack (such as the frequently discussed bombing of their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon) or any premeditated infringement of their territory, would be met with fierce retaliation.

Yeonpyeong is situated in the vicinity of the Northern limited Line (NLL), a maritime boundary to the west of the peninsula, unilaterally drawn by the United States and rejected by North Korea. In 2007 the leaders of North and South agreed to set up a special zone to do away with this area of friction, but that agreement was overturned by Lee Myung-bak when he assumed the presidency in 2008.

The South has announced that it will restart, and expand, its military exercises around the NLL, and this will inevitably trigger a Northern retaliation. The South has threatened to escalate any clash with air strikes and there is an increasing danger of the situation spiralling into war. South Korea and the United States have rejected calls by China, echoed by North Korea, for negotiation but have, instead, launched further war exercises led by the giant nuclear-powered, and nuclear capable, aircraft carrier the UUS Washington. This is happened despite protests from China which fears that the show of strength is really directed at her.

A second Korea war would inevitably involved the United States and would probably turn into a Sino-American war with incalculable consequences for the peninsula, the region and the world.

The full essay is available in various formats at the Pyongyang Report link at

Korean brinkmanship, American strategic paralysis, and the road to war[1]

The exchange of artillery fire between South and North Korea on 23 November had predictable results – a great increase of tension on the peninsula, a show of force by the United States, and a torrent of silly media articles and pontificating from the security industry. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor armed the Mujahideen in order to draw the Soviet Union into Afghanistan thereby starting that long and continuing war (and 9/11 for that matter), opined that

If these actions are deliberate it is an indication that the North Korean regime has reached a point of insanity. Its calculations and its actions are difficult to fathom in rational terms. Alternatively it is a sign that the regime is out of control. Different elements in Pyongyang, including parts of the military, are capable of taking actions on their own perhaps, without central co-ordination.[2]

Robert Kaplan,with a touch of wishful thinking, decided that the clash, and the earlier display of an experimental Light Water Reactor to US nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker[3],decided that the North Korean government was ‘imploding’ and would soon be ripe for plucking, though that would have to be shared, in some unexplained way, with China:

An aggressive nuclear programme coupled with military attacks on South Korea, including the sinking of a South Korean vessel by a submarine last March, are also a way for new leader Kim Jong-eun to cement his credentials. In his twenties, and with little experience, his ascension is being spurred along by his powerful uncle and aunt, Jang Song-taek and Kim Kyonghui, each with their own networks of power relationships.

This means that for the first time in its history, North Korea now has a multipolar leadership, in which power is not concentrated in the hands of one person. A regime that is illegitimate and divided best stays in power by keeping its people on a permanent war footing, which in turn encourages disparate elements of the power structure to pull in one direction.

The heightened aggression shown by North Korea therefore may be a sign that the regime is in deep trouble. A sudden implosion could unleash the mother of all humanitarian problems, with massive refugee flows toward the Chinese border and a semi-starving population of 23m becoming the ward of the international community – in effect the ward of the US, Chinese and South Korean armies

The Daily Telegraph’s security guru Praveen Swami decided this was all about getting aid:

South Korea is one of the engines of Asian prosperity, on which the world’s hopes of an early economic recovery rest on peace in the region. By attacking Yeonpyeong (Yonphyong[4]) island, a target of no strategic value, North Korea’s dysfunctional regime is telling the world how much pain it could inflict if it isn’t bribed to behave itself. It hopes that its sabre rattling will force talks where the West will agree to an aid package in return for a guarantee that Pyongyang will not produce further nuclear weapons.[5]

Also in London, the Evening Standard, getting a bit confused, editorialised that

North Korea wants a resumption of six-way talks between the regional powers, including the US and China, about its nuclear programme and its leaders may believe that a demonstration of strength, nuclear and military, can achieve it. The moves have, however, played predictably badly with the US.[6]

The writer was correct that the DPRK wants talks with the US, and the invitation to Hecker was part of the process of attempting to draw the Obama administration in negotiations, but fitting the artillery clash into that was of course ridiculous; if the Evening Standard can work out that such an incident would predictably push Washington away from negotiations, then Pyongyang would come to that pretty obvious conclusion as well.

One could go on.  If there is one thing the [Western] media is good at it is churning out a torrent of articles after an incident like this. If they regard it as newsworthy, of course. If there had just been North Korean casualties and no South Korean ones, the event would have scarcely caused a ripple. No deaths should be taken lightly, but a handful of casualties is just petty cash in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, and a drone killing a village leader and his family is so common that it is no longer remarked upon.

What most journalists and sundry pundits have in common is a lack of examination of the facts of the case – if you write what is essentially ideological polemic, facts can get in the way.  On top of that, or perhaps part of it, is a failure to understand and attempt to analyse the context in which the event is embedded.  This context has two aspects, the contemporary geopolitical environment, and the historical framework.  Once you take an event out of its context it often becomes impossible to comprehend it correctly. Worse still, events and the actors that perform them can have their meaning and significance distorted, often to the point of inversion.  Prey become predators, victims become villains, and war becomes peace.

Bearing in mind the importance of context it is necessary to focus on the three key drivers of the clash.  These are:

  • Lee Myung-bak’s policy towards the DPRK
  • The DPRK’s ‘zero tolerance’ strategy
  • The reason for the perpetuation of the Northern Limit Line (NLL)

Lee Myung-bak’s Northern policy

Unlike his immediate predecessors as president, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, Lee has a very adversarial and confrontational policy towards the North.  This has been evident from the beginning of his administration in all sorts of ways but it became increasingly manifest with his exploitation of the Cheonan incident. The fabricated investigation of the sinking is looking increasingly threadbare and the Yeonpyeong Island incident might have been an attempt to divert attention from that.  Certainly it fits within his strategy of raising tension on the peninsula.  The ultimate aim of that is to precipitate a crisis within which the DPRK would collapse, or at least could be portrayed to be in such a state that the US would agree to intervention.[7] As discussed below, the South Korean side knew that the North would actively respond if it went ahead with its live-fire exercises.  Whether the decision to proceed with what would be considered an unacceptable provocation went up to the President for confirmation we don’t know, any more than we know if the North Korean response was explicitly ordered by Kim Jong Il.  An article in the Chosun Ilbo argued, on rather flimsy grounds, that Kim was personally involved, but that is just speculation.[8] In both cases, South and North, local commanders may have been acting within rules of engagement that did not require endorsement from the top.

A very important part of Lee’s policy is the buildup of tension, especially through war exercises.  Of course Lee himself is only part of the decision making process.  War exercises happen because the US and ROK military want them, as does Washington. The exercises are justified on the grounds of protecting the South from the North but it is unlikely that anyone in authority actually believes that. The disparity in power between North Korea and its adversaries (primarily the Unites States and South Korea but perhaps including Japan) is huge and the North suffers an ‘overwhelming military disadvantage’.[9] Even though the ostensible reason for the exercise is a sham, motivations may vary.  For the US the prime objective is sending a message to China.[10] Lee’s motives are probably threefold: to increase pressure on the North to produce a crisis of confidence and a collapse, to raise tension and fear of the North in the South, and to lock the Americans into his strategy.

Frequent and large scale joint exercises between the US and ROK militaries, under US command, which have been a feature of the peninsula for decades, stretch back in various forms to the late 1940s.  The ROK military also has its own exercises, with little ostensible US involvement though since it is dependent on the US for high-tech intelligence – surveillance from aircraft and satellites, and signals interception – it seems likely that Americans are never far away. In addition, the ROK military is under the wartime operational control (OPCON) of the US. In other words for small clashes such as the one on Yeonpyeong island, they run the show on their own, but if war breaks out the US command takes over. Roh Moo-hyun had negotiated for the US to relinquish operational control in 2012 but under Lee this has been pushed back to 2015.[11] Control of Joint military exercise was also scheduled to be transferred to the ROK but this has also been rescinded.[12]

The DPRK also has its own exercises, but not with China or anyone else.  A recent report from the Congressional Research Service notes that there is still a formal treaty between the DPRK and China, but little more than that:

…..the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance—which committed either party to come to the aid of the other if attacked. This military alliance, however, lacks key operational components, such as a joint headquarters, joint planning, or even joint military exercises.[13]

Indeed, when I raised the issue of the treaty with Chinese scholars in Beijing in November 2010, the replies were rather vague and it was unclear whether the treaty was still considered as binding.  Whereas the US frequently makes a point of saying it will come to the aid of its ally the Republic of Korea, China makes no such promises in respect of the DPRK, calling instead for peace and stability.

Differentiating the involvement of the great powers, specifically the United States and China, is essential if we are to understand the security dynamics of the Korean peninsula.  Treaties may be no more than scraps of paper. It is the establishment of implementation mechanisms – joint control, exercises, operational plans (OPLAN) and interoperability –that distinguishes the real from the merely formal.  Neither Korea could invade the other without the support of its’ patron’, but clearly the commitment of the United States and China varies greatly.  Moreover, invasions don’t just happen – they have to be planned and practised.  It is only the United States that does this, not China and North Korea.

Sometimes it is difficult to disentangle the offensive from the defensive, and much depends on context, and interpreting it.  The US ‘Missile Defense’ programme is touted as defensive but coupled with the US offensive capability, which it would enable to be utilised with impunity, it is rightly regarded by the targeted countries as inherently aggressive.[14] The US-ROK military exercises are claimed to be ‘defensive’ but if we look closely we see that they are quite the opposite.  Here is a description from the Seoul newspaper Hankyoreh about the exercise held at the end of November:

Joint South Korea-U.S. drills with the USS George Washington in the West Sea will be held from Sunday to Wednesday [28 November-1 December 2010]. North Korea has promised retaliation if both countries hold the drills in the West Sea.

South Korea and the United States have stated that the drills are routine and defensive in nature, but with the drills being held in the middle of the West Sea for the first time, they strongly take on the character of a show of force against North Korea. ..

Moreover, the South Korean military and U.S. military reportedly plan to limit the exercise to waters south of Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province. This means they will conduct the exercise in waters outside the range of North Korea’s Samlet (83~95km) and Silkworm and Styx (46km) land-to-sea anti-ship missiles

Participating in the carrier strike force will be the 9,600-ton Aegis cruisers USS Cowpens and 9,750-ton Aegis destroyers USS Shiloh and USS Stethem and USS Fitzgerald. One Aegis destroyer carries about 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles that can bombard North Korea’s nuclear facilities with precision strikes.

The E-2C airborne early warning aircraft about the carrier is a “flying radar base” that detects and analyzes the situation in the air and ground from a far distance. The USS George Washington carries about 80 aircraft, including the fighter-bombers F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F/A-18A/C Hornet. South Korea will provide two KDX-II destroyers, a patrol boat, frigate, supply ship and anti-submarine aircraft.

As the drill is taking place far from the NLL, the Marines on Baengnyeong Island, Yeonpyeong Island and the other Five West Sea Islands will not participate. The Marine artillery drills on Yeonpyeong Island will restart during the middle of next month, after the damage from Tuesday’s attack has been repaired. On Sunday, the first day of the joint South Korea-U.S. drill, the Marines will participate in regiment-level landing drills at Mallipo, South Chungcheong Province as part of the Hoguk Exercise, a primarily South Korean drill that involves U.S. participation.[emphasis added][15]

On the one hand we have a task force headed by the giant  nuclear-powered (and presumably nuclear-capable) carrier USS Washington, a ‘warship capable of delivering air power anywhere in the world’ as its official website proudly tells us. [16] The taskforce with its missiles and aircraft can bomb anywhere in North Korea (and much of China as the Chinese are well aware). Deployed against that we have North Korea artillery and shore-to-ship missiles, both of limited range, and unable to threaten the task force.  And if we were to have any doubt about the message all this is designed to deliver, just note the marine landing drills.

The media often plays its role in disguising the threatening nature of these exercises by describing them as ‘war games’, as if they were playful, pretend, activities with no harm being done or contemplated.[17]

The US-ROK joint military exercises not merely prepare for a possible invasion of North Korea but they also serve as weapons of attrition.  They force North Korea to devote much more of its resources to the military than it would if there were no palpable threat.  An important component of the exercise is their element of ambiguity.  The Korean People’s Army (KPA) can never be sure when a feint might become the real thing, so every exercise has to be taken very seriously. The translation of this commentary from the Rodong Sinmun on the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises in 2009 may be fractured but the underling fear of attack is clear:

The said largest-scale saber rattling kicked off by the U.S. imperialists against the DPRK at a time when their scenario for the second Korean war is at the final stage of completion is a very adventurous and dangerous military provocation that can be seen only on the eve of a war, and this is an undisguised military threat and a sort of declaration of war against the DPRK.

No one can vouch that the U.S. imperialist bellicose elements will not ignite a war against the DPRK by surprise while reinforcing armed forces and staging war maneuvers in south Korea and its vicinity as they did in Iraq.[18]

It is important to note that the clash at Yeonpyeong Island coincided with a substantial military exercise, the Hoguk (‘Safeguarding the Nation’):

North Korea fired the artillery during South Korea’s military drill called the Hoguk Exercise on Nov. 22-30 that involves 70,000 South Korean military troops, 50 warships, 90 helicopters and 500 planes. The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) of U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Seventh Air Force will also participate in the exercise.[19]

The scheduled participation of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is particularly significant.[20] The 31st MEU is based in Okinawa and it is America’s ‘forward deployed rapid-response’ unit in East Asia.  It trains with the ROK marines practicing beach landings, but its major specialism appears to be urban warfare. [21] One of its possible functions is to mount a commando type raid on the DPRK.  A Japanese scholar writing in the authoritative PACNET newsletter of Pacific Forum CSIS (the Honolulu branch of the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International studies rather gave the game away about the ‘North Korean threat’ by putting it thus:

As a collapse of North Korea — rather than a North Korean invasion of South Korea — has become a more likely scenario, the 31st MEU can search and seize the North Korean nuclear arsenal, and prevent proliferation of those weapons[22]

It is not surprising therefore that the KPA was concerned about the Hoguk exercise and responded to the ROK live firing in line with the ‘zero tolerance’ strategy. However, concerns extend beyond specific military exercises, to the whole policy of building up of tension in preparation for a crisis that would lead to an invasion of the North.  The KPA barrage can be seen as a message that an attack would be met by a devastating counteroffensive which would, at the very least, imperil Seoul; it was a reminder that ‘Seoul [is] not safe from artillery attacks’.[23]

The DPRK’s ‘zero tolerance’ strategy

The DPRK’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy long predates the Lee Myung-bak administration, let alone the present crisis.  Basically this strategy is to reiterate than no infringement of DPRK territory will be tolerated, and any intrusion will be met by force.  There has been flexibility and restraint in implementing this strategy, especially in respect of the NLL (see below), but the underlying strategic calculation is that any sign of weakness will lead to further US and ROK moves against the DPRK.

The case of the US invasion of Iraq is often cited by the North Koreans of the dangers of an appeasement policy.  This is often raised in respect of the nuclear deterrent.  For instance, Alexander Frolov, writing recently  in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs journal International Affairs on lessons from the Iraq war made the point

The leadership in N. Korea also realized that nothing less than a nuclear status can guarantee the country against US aggression. [24]

However, the relevance of Iraq to the non-appeasement policy goes beyond developing a nuclear deterrent.

For instance, in May 2003 after a breakdown in US-DPRK negotiations, the official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) in a lengthy statement included a reference to Iraq:

On March 20 this year the U.S. provoked a war of aggression against Iraq under the pretext of “finding out weapons of mass destruction” in a bid to topple the Saddam government.

The Iraqi war taught the lesson that “nuclear suspicion,” “suspected development of weapons of mass destruction” and suspected “sponsorship of terrorism” touted by the U.S. were all aimed to find a pretext for war and one would fall victim to a war when one meekly responds to the IAEA’s inspection for disarmament.

Neither strong international public opinion nor big countries’ opposition to war nor the UN Charter could prevent the U.S. from launching the Iraqi war.

It is a serious lesson the world has drawn from the Iraqi war that a war can be averted and the sovereignty of the country and the security of the nation can be protected only when a country has a physical deterrent force, a strong military deterrent force capable of decisively repelling any attack to be made by any types of sophisticated weapons.

The reality indicates that building up a physical deterrent force is urgently required for preventing the outbreak of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and ensuring peace and security of the world, now that the U.S. does not show any political intention and will to renounce its hostile policy toward the DPRK.

The DPRK will increase its self-defensive capacity strong enough to destroy aggressors at a single stroke. Any U.S. aerial attack will be decisively countered with aerial attack and its land strategy will be coped with land strategy. [25]

In reality, a North Korean counter offensive would not match like with like –  ‘aerial attack will be decisively countered with aerial attack and its land strategy will be coped with land strategy.’ The DPRK cannot hope to match US military power (especially in the air) so its offensive would be asymmetrical, drawing on its strengths.[26] It would probably utilise its special forces, submarines, and in particular its artillery.[27]

As noted, the frequent war exercises, the integration of the ROK military into the US command structure, and the associated operational plans, are seen by the DPRK as very threatening

[The United States] made public “strategic guideline No. 1” in November 1978 and thus officially announced the formation of the “Combined Forces Command” in south Korea. It saw to it that the “Combined Forces Command” took over the “UN Forces Command’s” Operation Control of the U.S. forces in south Korea and puppet army.

The organization of the “Combined Forces Command” deepened the military dependence of south Korea on the United States and increased the danger for an outbreak of a new war on the Korean Peninsula.

The Team Spirit joint military exercises for invading the north had been escalated as a large-scale war exercises involving huge armed forces over100,000-200,000 strong from 1978. Such joint military exercises as the Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration (RSOI), Ulji Focus Lens and Foal Eagle have been staged almost every day as planned and directed by the command.

The aggressive and bellicose nature of the command has remained unchanged even after the June 15 era [the 2000 North-South summit], a new era of reconciliation and cooperation, was ushered in on the Korean Peninsula.

Many war scenarios against the north including “OPLAN 5030”, “New OPLAN 5026” and “OPLAN 8022-02” have been worked out and war exercises to carry them into practice conducted in a more frenzied way.

This year the command changed the codenames of the RSOI and Ulji Focus Lens with Key Resolve and Ulji Freedom Guardian and is holding actual maneuvers to hurl U.S. imperialist aggression forces in the mainland and abroad into Korean front.

It goes without saying that such war exercises and arms buildup had have negative effect on the north-south relations and chilled the ardent desire for the Korean people for reunification.

The south Korean people thus press for the dissolution of the “Combined Forces Command” disturbing peace in Korea and obstructing her reunification.

The south Korea-U.S. “Combined Forces Command”, a tool for war of aggression and a source of permanent atmosphere of war and tension on the Korean Peninsula, should be disbanded without delay. [28]

The most famous example of the efficacy of the strategy is the reported argument between President Kim Young-sam and President Bill Clinton in 1994.  According to Kim, Clinton wanted to bomb the North Korea nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. A 2003 BBC report recounted the tale:

“Clinton told me that he would launch an immediate bombardment on the Yongbyon area. Clinton was very determined about it, but I argued to him that such an attack should never take place,” said Mr Kim.

“So there was quite an argument between him and me. Sometimes the phone conversations lasted more than 40 minutes,” he said.

Mr Clinton first revealed the 1994 plan to attack North Korea last month, but said nothing of the alleged dispute with the South.

Mr Kim said that a US attack would have led to a tremendous loss of life, and would have turned Seoul into a “sea of fire”.

“Finally I told him that if the United States attacks North Korea, I cannot send one single member of South Korea’s 650,000 armed forces into battle.” [29]

Kim’s version of events was contradicted by Tong Kim (Kim Dong-hyun) a Korean-American who worked as an interpreter for the State Department for over 30 years.  According to him,

It simply is not the case […]. There was no discussion about a possible U.S. attack on North Korea between the two presidents via phone. Such discussions indeed took place between their defense ministers Kwon Young-hae and William Perry with the South Korean minister obviously opposed to the military action.[30]

The consequences of a Northern counterattack, and specifically an artillery offense against Seoul, was not the only consideration, although it was the main one.  A South Korean simulation exercise predicted that ‘bombing of North Korea’s nuclear facilities could in the worst case make the whole of Korea uninhabitable for a decade’.[31] The bombing of Yongbyon was but one variant of the ‘military option’ that the United States has been examining, albeit the favoured one.[32] The release of radioactivity aside, an US attack would mean war with immense devastation of the Korea peninsula, so it is to be expected that there has been, in the past, opposition across the political spectrum, from progressive President Roh Moo-hyun to conservative legislator Park Jin.[33] The exception to that have been those, such as Lee Myung-bak, who pin their hopes on a collapse that would prevent the North from making a counterattack.  This is an ongoing issue but as long as the DPRK functions as a viable state, committed and able, to retaliate, then there will be no attack. Part of the reason for the vigorous response at Yeonpyeong was presumably to demonstrate that the KPA was still in business.

The DPRK has been threatened, and blockaded, by the United States for decades, but unlike various other countries, it has not been invaded, or bombed. To that degree the zero-tolerance strategy can be said to work.  But it has its disadvantages.  It is a high-risk strategy. If there is a miscalculation or a misunderstanding, or ‘maverick’ action by soldiers on the front line, then the situation could rapidly whirl out of control. War would be disastrous for North Korea, despite the brave words. It would have grave consequences for the South, and Japan.  If it spread to China the results are incalculable, but it might mean the end of the United States, that ‘fragile empire’ as Niall Ferguson recently termed it.[34] It is a variant of the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War period, a bluff that is effective because it is credible, but a bluff that if put into action would be catastrophic. In this case, the destruction would not be equivalent. The DPRK would suffer more than other countries, but the ROK and the US would suffer unacceptable damage and that could be considered sufficient to keep the peace.

The strategy has other disadvantages.  It allows the DPRK to be portrayed as belligerent, and certainly the coverage of the Yeonpyeong incident, within South Korea, and internationally has been virtually uniformly hostile. Not everyone has jumped on to the bandwagon and there are those, in particular Korean-Americans, who oppose the drift towards war and call for engagement.[35] But these are only a tiny minority.

The strategy also runs counter to the main thrust of DPRK strategy which is to negotiate the United States into accepting peaceful coexistence.  Recourse to confrontation, and military action, makes that more difficult to prosecute.

Finally, it gives a hostage to fortune.  The other side (here South Korea but in other circumstances it could be the US) can construct a provocation knowing that it will trigger a response that can be labelled as belligerent.  The trick here is to do something which the DPRK regards as provocative but which can be disguised as normal and legitimate.  The military exercises in general fall within this category.  For the DPRK (and China) they are intimidating and provocative, but that is not how they are described in the Western media.  No doubt if the tables were turned and it was a North Korean carrier stalking up the American coast, perceptions would be different.

In the particular case of Yeonpyeong the ROK did something that was portrayed as legitimate and non-threatening but which the DPRK found intolerable.  To understand why that was so we must turn to the curious case of the Northern Limit Line (NLL)

Northern Limit Line

The Northern Limit Line is a very strange beast, as a glance at the map shows (fig 1).

Fig 1: Contested seas: The NLL and the MDL

1.Yeonpyeong Island (artillery clash) 2.Baengnyeong Island (Cheonan sinking) 3.Daecheong Island
4. Incheon  Airport 5.Seoul 6.Incheon
7.Haeju 8.Kaesong 9.Ganghwa County
10.Bukdo Myeon 11.Deokjeok Myeon 12.Jawol Myeon
13.Yeongheung Myeon

Source: Wikipedia <>, downloaded 30 November 2010

On this map #1 indicates Yeonpyeong Island where the artillery clash took place, and #2 Baengnyeong Island, off which the Cheonan sank.  The upper(blue) line represents the Northern Limit Line (NLL) and the lower (red) one the West Sea Military Demarcation Line (MDL) claimed by the DPRK.

The NLL  was unilaterally established by the Americans (officially the United Nations Command) in August 1953.[36] The NLL, instead of striking out directly from the coast at the end of the land Military Demarcation Line (MDL), snakes up the west coast of North Korea, through rice crab fish grounds, and  taking in various islands the main three of which are .Yeonpyeong (1) , Baengnyeong (2), and  Daecheong (3).  It has been argued that it was set up to prevent Southern incursions into Northern waters (Syngman Rhee had not signed the Armistice Agreement and wanted the war to continue), although it would be more plausible to see it also as affording bases for inserting intelligence and commando teams.  Be that as it may, by the 1990s commando raids were a thing of the past, and yet the ROK refused to negotiate.  This despite two major incidents in 1999 and 2002 which were a distinct threat to the ‘Sunshine Policy of then president Kim Dae-jung.[37] There was a further clash in November 2009 under the presidency of Lee Myung-bak.[38] This 2009 incident may have owed something to the more assertive North Korea policy of the Lee administration.[39]

The NLL did not receive much international attention until the Cheonan incident of March 2010. There were a number of reasons for this.  Most of the causalities in the past were Northern and so, in the eyes of most of the international media, perhaps warranted less attention.  The Cheonan was the largest single disaster for the ROK navy.

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