In Border Standoff, South Korea Adopts a More Aggressive Posture

4 MINS READAug 20, 2015 | 13:45 GMT
In Border Standoff, South Korea Adopts More Aggressive Posture
A North Korean soldier (R) looks at a South Korean counterpart as Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization representatives visit the border village of Panmunjom between the two countries on June 25.
The Korean Peninsula is no stranger to seemingly imminent crisis, but a new standoff between the North and South along the Demilitarized Zone highlights the more complicated risk environment. On Aug. 20, North and South Korean forces exchanged fire across the inter-Korean border, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry. The South has also raised its military readiness alert to its highest level, "Jindogae 1," which indicates immediate danger or imminent attack. While neither North Korea nor South Korea wants war, the Korean Peninsula is in a period of dangerous posturing with significant risk of escalation and miscalculation.
The latest exchange comes as tension is high on the Korean Peninsula, following the maiming of two South Korean soldiers by a land mine on Aug. 4 as they were conducting a patrol inside the South Korean half of the 4-kilometer-wide (2.5-mile-wide) Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that separates the two countries. The incident was reportedly the first of its kind in 48 years. Seoul accused North Korea of infiltrating the DMZ and planting the mine. In response, the South Koreans began propaganda broadcasts from a number of towers along the border — a move reciprocated by Pyongyang.

Measured Actions

The North Koreans have issued numerous threats over the past week, particularly regarding the restart of the broadcasts, but also in response to the ongoing annual joint Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercise between the United States and the South. This year's drills, which began Aug. 17 and are slated to run through Aug. 28, involve 50,000 South Korean soldiers and 30,000 of their U.S. counterparts. Pyongyang views Ulchi Freedom Guardian as practice for a potential invasion of North Korea.
Despite the recent skirmishes and the heightened alert levels, however, it is entirely possible that the situation will rapidly de-escalate, because both sides seek to practice restraint to avoid a larger conflict. The North Koreans, for instance, reportedly fired just a single projectile, presumed to be a rocket, at 3:52 p.m. toward a South Korean loudspeaker position near the town of Yeoncheon. The South Korean military, having detected the rocket with counterbattery radar, returned fired with its own artillery, but not until more than an hour later. Indeed, this kind of incident has happened before without spiraling out of control. The location of the exchange occurred in roughly the same area that the North Koreans fired at balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets in October 2014, also prompting some return fire from South Korea. Despite the apocalyptic warnings Pyongyang issued after Seoul resumed its propaganda broadcasts, the North Koreans are clearly attempting a balanced and controlled escalation. The North is likely trying, at least in part, to coerce the South into backing down by raising the specter of a destabilizing conflict

A Higher-Risk Environment

However, unlike the March 2010 surprise sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean navy corvette, and the November 2010 bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, the current skirmishes are taking place along the DMZ. Preventing a major escalation is significantly more complicated along this strip, where the presence of two massive armies in close proximity raises the risk of cascading fire occurring along the ranks.
Escalation control is further challenged by a more aggressive South Korean stance. In the aftermath of the Yeonpyeong bombardment, the South Koreans determined, or at least publically insinuated, that they would no longer practice significant restraint in the face of North Korean provocation. The view in Seoul has shifted because minimal responses to past incidents were perceived as having little deterrence effect. Over the past week, a number of South Korean generals once again warned that Seoul will not tolerate any provocation and that its military will not hesitate to "boldly pull the trigger." Indeed, despite the reports that the North Koreans fired only a single projectile into South Korea on Aug. 20, the South reportedly retaliated with dozens of 155 mm artillery rounds.
With the Korean conflict still unresolved, the peninsula periodically goes through periods of high tension that occasionally result in bloody clashes. Both sides are keen to avoid a full-scale destabilizing conflict, but with millions of troops facing each other across the DMZ, the risk of escalation is ever present. The current standoff could still rapidly dissipate, but it is important to remember that miscalculation is a persistent risk under these circumstances. 

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