Earlier today, North Korea fired more than 100 live artillery rounds at South Korea. Well, toward South Korea, across a disputed maritime boundary called the “Northern Limit Line.” In response, the South fired more than 300 rounds back. But there were no massive craters dug in the ground and no bloody bodies carried back from the front lines — all the shells fell into the water. And so, just as they were after the recent round of North Korean missile launches, the big losers in this skirmish were fish.
It's great news that the Korean peninsula is not currently swathed in a hellish armageddon of fire and destruction (especially since I'm currently in South Korea covering the annual Ssang Yong military training exercises). Still, it says a lot about the relationship between two countries when you watch them fire hundreds of artillery rounds past each other and say, “On a positive note, they’re not actively trying to kill each other!” This latest round of diplomacy-with-ordnance is a matter of one Korea (take your pick) telling the other Korea that they’ve just about had enough of their shit.
The North Korean shelling started during the high-profile amphibious assault portion of the Ssang Yong exercises, known as Double Dragon by South Korea's training partner, the United States. This year’s exercise is the largest ever, with more than 10,000 South Korean and US troops participating. The US emphasized that this exercise is part of a large ongoing effort to make sure that the South Korean and US militaries can operate effectively as a joint force should the need arise.
South Korea wants to deter North Korea from getting any bright ideas about war. This makes the North act like war is exactly what it wants.
South Korea, in turn, is working to expand its amphibious capabilities as it develops its ability to project naval power. But perhaps most important of all, South Korea wants to show off its strong alliance with the US and deter North Korea from getting any bright ideas about war. This makes the North act like war is exactly what it wants.
The US has clearly tried to avoid saying anything warmongering about these exercises, but North Korea isn’t listening. In fact, the regime is freaking out — but this is a regular ritual whenever the Ssang Yong exercises take place. This year’s slight twist is that South Korea is taking a more robust defensive posture, which may have contributed to South Korea’s decision to match the North's long-range blast-fishing activities. The South has instituted a policy that would allow its military to strike preemptively in the event of an imminent provocative attack, and that change in posture no doubt has ramifications in Pyongyang.
Judging by North Korea's announcements about a “new kind” of nuclear test, there will likely be a few more rounds of back-and-forth on the peninsula. That doesn't mean there should be any expectation of major hostilities in the short term. But communication via demonstrations of force involve an inherent potential for miscalculations of the sort that can quickly spiral into a much graver situation.
For more info from South Korea on the Ssang Yong military training exercises, follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan