Normally I would leave discussion of this sort of topic to Pablo, whose expertise is much greater than mine (and I expect he will weigh in with his own thoughts on the topic too). But I lived there for a few years and had a great deal of time to ponder the security situation there, both through my own research and in discussion with several groups of former soldiers and senior businesspeople whom I was teaching English whilst there, and I think I have a handle on it.
A bit of background. The DPRK (North) and ROK (South) Korea remain officially at war; the armistice agreed in 1953 after the Korean War was not a peace treaty and signalled only a cessation of hostilities which has been accompanied by significant military and intelligence preparations on both sides. It is a tense situation, but it is at a fairly stable equilibrium because the mutual assured destruction principle still holds to a large extent. The ROK and its allies understand that the DPRK and its primary military and command assets are sufficiently well-defended that an assault from the South would draw a counter-attack which would inflict massive civilian, military and infrastructure casualties — estimates range in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in greater Seoul alone, which is within easy artillery range. And that’s with conventional weaponry alone, not taking into consideration the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (the regime certainly has the former two; it’s generally agreed that it also has the latter, but not in a deliverable form). For its part the DPRK understands that such an assault on the ROK would spell the end of its regime at the hands of a US-led NATO force.
There is a sense among people responding to the the news that yesterday’s exchange of artillery fire at Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea is qualitatively different from the dozens of other skirmishes which have taken place over the past 50-odd years of this cold conflict. It is true that this is one of the more serious engagements of that war, but it essentially follows the same pattern. Some action by the ROK and its allies (in this case a joint US-ROK naval exercise) granted the DPRK a pretext to rattle its chains; it fired a few rounds and some fiery rhetorical statements and the ROK does likewise. Two ROK soldiers have died, a dozen or so soldiers and a few civilians have been injured, and more civilians from the region have evacuated to the mainland. The casualty count is higher than usual, but so far, so typical. Late last night (NZ time) the DPRK released a statement alleging that the ROK had fired first. This is almost certainly false — the ROK rarely instigates these sorts of engagements — but that doesn’t matter. The purpose of the statement is to raise questions as to the ROK’s moral standing in the engagement, and to provide the ROK government with cover to stand down on the basis that it’s not worth going to war over a misunderstanding. If they do stand down the ROK government risks a minor loss of face, but since they are a liberal-democratic state whose populace has no appetite for war (and for the strategic reasons mentioned above) then barring much more serious provocation they will do so, President Lee Myung-bak’s own florid rhetoric about “enormous retaliation” notwithstanding.
Again: business as usual. While this latest event is perhaps quantitatively more serious than some previous events, it is qualitatively no different. This is the same strategic posturing game which is played out every crab fishing season in the West Sea, and year-round on the land border between the two states. The most serious mistake most of those who are now calling this the start of World War III are making is to try to understand this event in customary diplomatic terms as they would the relationship between two liberal-democratic states in good international standing. The DPRK’s actions and motivations make no sense when viewed in this light, because the DPRK is not, and never has been such a state. The explanation of these events are to be found, if anywhere, in an examination of the DPRK’s internal regime dynamics. Pablo has written about this topic recently with regard to the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan in March, and I urge you to reread his post in light of these most recent events.
So I don’t think there’s anything much to this. Due to the DPRK’s military doctrine of total war, an invasion or genuine commencement of hostilities would not begin with a few mortars; it would start with a massive and rapid deployment of force, targeted at the most vulnerable civilian and infrastructure targets, likely in the middle of the night and preferably during an adverse weather event or some sort of civil unrest. None of these conditions abide at present. But the fundamental point is that the tense yet stable strategic situation on the 38th has not changed, so it is very unlikely that either side will choose this juncture as the hook upon which to hang the possible demise of their state. There have been some recent developments in that strategic situation — the probable elevation of Kim Jong-Il’s son to a senior position in preparation for ascent to leadership of the regime; fresh concerns about the regime’s nuclear weapons program, and so on — but I believe these are too minor and too recent to have wrought the sorts of changes to the internal DPRK dynamic and to the cross-border dynamic which would be required for a substantial change in posture.
Of course, you never know. I have no special inside information or insight into the strategic situation there, and it may be that events of which few people are aware are driving this situation. But on the face of things this has been just another day on the 38th Parallel.