Straub explains context of North-South Korea artillery fire

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North Korean soldiers stand guard at the Demilitarized Zone, 2008.
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North Korea today threatened military action against South Korea if it did not end its propaganda broadcasts along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) within 48 hours. The broadcasts against the North are being systematically blared by loudspeakers over the border.   

South Korea resumed the broadcasts earlier this week after an 11-year hiatus, in retaliation for North Korea’s planting landmines just outside a South Korean DMZ guard post that crippled two South Korean soldiers on Aug. 4.

David Straub, associate director of the Korea Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and a former Korean affairs director at the U.S. Department of State, offers insights on the situation. Straub also spoke on PRI's "The World" radioshow on Aug. 20, the audioclip and summary can be accessed by clicking here.

What’s behind the current tensions on the Korean Peninsula?

Fundamentally, the current situation is just another symptom of the underlying problem, which is the division of Korea into two competing states, with one of them—North Korea—having a Stalinist totalitarian system and a Maoist-style cult of personality. Since North Korea can’t compete with the South economically and diplomatically, it uses the threat of force or the actual use of it to try to intimidate South Korea. The North Koreans know that South Korea tends to “blink first” and step back because it is democratic and its leaders are concerned about civilian casualties.

The current situation is also related to the leadership transition in North Korea, with leader Kim Jong Un succeeding his father Kim Jong Il three years ago. Kim Jong Un still feels insecure, which is clearly evidenced by his execution of his powerful uncle Jang Seong-taek in 2013 and many other leaders there as well. To solidify support for his rule, he also manufactures a South Korean threat to rally his people behind him.

What does North Korea want?

North Korea’s immediate demand is that South Korea stop its propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ. The South Korean broadcasts criticize the North Korean system and its leaders, which is something that the North, with its cult of personality, can’t accept. But the South resumed the broadcasts only because the North Koreans recently snuck into the South Korean side of the DMZ and viciously planted landmines just outside a South Korean guard post. These were clearly intended to maim South Korean soldiers. They did just that, blowing the legs off two young men.

The North Korean regime’s long-term aim is not just to survive but also to get the upper hand on South Korea, and eventually try again to reunify the peninsula on its own terms. That explains why North Korea behaves as it does, rather than reform its system and reconcile with the South.

The North also demands an end to all U.S. and South Korean military exercises on the peninsula—even though the North has a much larger military than the South and U.S. forces there combined and is developing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Ultimately, the North wants to end the U.S.-South Korean alliance and see U.S. forces withdrawn from the peninsula, in the belief that it will open the way to eventual victory over the South.

Why did the South resume the broadcasts? Was it a good idea?

South Korea resumed the loudspeaker broadcasts in retaliation for the maiming of two of its soldiers on August 4th. Rather than retaliate by attacking militarily, the South resumed the loudspeaker broadcasts because the South Korean military knows that North Korean leaders hate them.

The South Korean military believes that North Korean leaders hate the broadcasts because they are effective in educating young North Korean soldiers and civilians in earshot about the nature of the regime and its leaders. The South Korean military seems to assume that the broadcasts are effective in that regard because they anger the North Korean leaders so much. But I think the reason the broadcasts anger the North Korean leaders is due to the cult of personality. The North Korean system can’t accept the idea of its leaders being criticized.

So I don’t think it was necessarily a wise step on the part of the South Korean military to resume the broadcasts. On the other hand, politically, by crippling two South Korean soldiers, the North Koreans had left South Korea with no option but to respond in some way. After the North Koreans killed fifty South Koreans in two separate sneak attacks five years ago, the South Korean government warned that it was not going to sit back the next time. The resumption of the broadcasts has further raised tensions but, frankly, given the danger of war on the peninsula, the South doesn’t have a lot of good ways to respond to North Korean provocations.

How serious is the situation?

North Korea has now threatened military action in 48 hours if South Korea doesn’t end the propaganda broadcasts. The North often makes threats. Usually, it doesn’t carry them out, but sometimes it does.

The United States and South Korea are conducting an annual military exercise together in the South until the end of August—something else that the North Koreans are demanding an end to. Most experts feel that the North is unlikely to launch a major provocation while the American presence is bolstered and the U.S. and South Korean militaries are paying full attention. The North Korean leaders know they are weaker than our side, so they usually avoid frontal assaults and instead engage in sneak attacks, at times and places and in ways of their own choosing.

There is more uncertainty in recent years because of the aggressive and threatening behavior thus far of Kim Jong Un, who is young and inexperienced. He seems anxious about his position in the North and prepared to take risks to bolster it, including rallying the people behind him by raising tensions with the South. We also don’t know if the North feels freer to engage in major provocations because it has developed at least a handful of nuclear devices since its first nuclear test in 2006.

So I myself wouldn’t be afraid to visit Seoul now but the situation bears even closer watching than usual.