North Korea Shells South Korea – Is It Bait?

By Sarabjeet Singh Parmar

The Korean Peninsula is in the news again. This month North Korea has sent out two strong signals. The first was a conducted tour, on 12 November 2010, of the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex for a US nuclear scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker and his two colleagues from the Centre for International and Security Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University. The second was the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on 23 November 2010. North Korea asserts that it retaliated after being first shelled by South Korea. Denying this, South Korea states that it had been conducting military drills in the area earlier on and its forces had fired West, and not North.

It appears that a premeditated plan is falling into place and a ‘testing of waters’ has begun. Two main issues are examined here – the rationale for the nuclear revelation and the military build up.

In the first place permitting Hecker to visit and see the facilities of the nuclear complex appears to be a brilliant move. Prior to joining CISAC Hecker was head of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the principal entities involved in the creation and stewardship of the US nuclear stockpile. This was Hecker’s fourth trip to the complex, and thus a report by him would gain tremendous attention.

In his November 20 report,1 Hecker brings out some interesting points:

  • The team was shown a 25 to 30 megawatt-electric (MWe) experimental light-water reactor (LWR) in the early stages of construction.
  • This is North Korea’s first attempt at LWR technology and which the North Koreans claim is proceeding with strictly indigenous resources and talent. The target date for operationalisation is 2012. But this, according to Hecker’s report, is optimistic.
  • The facilities appear to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power and not to boost North Korea’s military capability.
  • No evidence of continued plutonium production was observed. However, the uranium enrichment facilities could be readily converted to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) bomb fuel (or parallel facilities could exist elsewhere) and the LWR could be run in a mode to produce plutonium potentially suitable for bombs, but much less suitable than that from their current reactor.

Hecker leaves some questions unanswered with the caveat that “these and other questions would take time and more people to answer.”2 The questions he leaves are: Is Pyongyang really pursuing a modern nuclear electricity programme? If so, what are its chances of success without outside help? Has Pyongyang decided to abandon its plutonium production complex (or at least keep it dormant)? Does it have additional uranium centrifuge facilities that could easily be dedicated to producing HEU bomb fuel? How did North Korea acquire centrifuge technology at such a level of sophistication and when? Why did Pyongyang decide to show us the facilities now and how does this fit into their broader strategy of how to deal with its domestic and international challenges?3

The second issue is the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. In this context, it would be useful to consider a few important aspects. South Korea’s Defence Minister, according to a 22 November report, had stated that his country was considering the re-deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons, which the United States had removed in December 1991.4 This issue was discussed by a parliamentary committee and it was planned to be taken up during a joint US-South Korean military committee meeting scheduled in December 2010. However, on 23 November, the South Korean Deputy Defence Minister ruled out the redeployment of US nuclear weapons on its soil as a deterrent against North Korea, further stating that “Redeploying US tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea would cross the line set by the policy of denuclearising the Korean peninsula.5 The retraction, apparently, came too late.

There is a strong possibility that North Korea has crafted a well laid out plan to bring the United States back to the negotiating table. The statement of the South Korean Defence Minister and the military exercise conducted by South Korea could possibly have given the North Koreans the chance to employ strong arm tactics for recommencement of negotiations. This appears to be the main agenda. In response the international reaction has been the usual.

  • The United States has deployed the USS George Washington with an embarked carrier air wing and four other ships in the area.
  • The United States and South Korea have declared that they would hold an exercise, which would be defensive in nature, in the Yellow Sea, west of the peninsula from 28 November to 01 December 2010. The United States has notified China, Japan and other nations in the region of this exercise in international waters. Pentagon officials say that the exercise was planned well in advance of the shelling. The USS George Washington last exercised in the area in October 2009.
  • China has urged a return to the Six Party Talks. It has also fended off calls from the United States and its regional allies to use China’s vital food and energy aid to North Korea as a lever. China has strongly opposed manoeuvres in its exclusive economic zone without its approval.
  • The South Korean Defence Minister has resigned and has been replaced by the President’s Security Advisor, Lee Hee-Won, who is a career military person. Lee is experienced in military operations and well versed in cooperating with the armed forces of the United States.

Deploying a carrier force in a region of tension has been the standard US procedure. But this step has attendant ramifications and affords both strategic and tactical advantages. As of now the situational balance is tilting in favour of North Korea and China. Given the geographical, strategic and tactical setting of the area, India needs to observe and closely follow the situation. There are lessons in the offing to be learnt.

  • The American and South Korean resolve is being tested in a scenario of heightened tensions. Further actions would give a good idea of how the United States would react in the future. This would indicate how India should go about with its strategic and military relations with the United States.
  • Deployment of a carrier group and the exercise between the United States and South Korea would enable a comprehensive study of future military operations and interoperability, especially since the sea room available for manoeuvring in the area is limited. The deployment and exercise would also enable North Korea and China to plan out a strategy to counter future deployments in the area and assess their own preparedness. It would be interesting to observe how North Korea and China react to the US deployment.
  • The United States is presently wary of the Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM with a range of 1000 miles) Programme. A successful test of the missile would force a change in strategic and tactical deployment of maritime forces. If the United States cannot counter and overcome the ASBM, its influence in Asia will likely decline, China’s implicit claim to regional hegemony will gain traction, and a regional arms competition driven by territorial disputes in the South China Sea may erupt. Indeed, US allies, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea, may begin to ask themselves fundamental questions about how to cope without the US Navy’s presence, which has helped keep the peace in East Asia for decades, as exemplified by Bill Clinton’s successful use of aircraft carriers in 1995 and 1996 to quell tensions between China and Taiwan in the Taiwan Straits.6 The United States would have to revisit its East Asia policy especially as it is facing a looming budget crisis.
  • The world is increasingly looking to China whenever tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula. China is the North’s biggest trading partner and, despite international sanctions, provides Pyongyang with both political support and economic aid. China’s actions would determine its status as a reliable factor for stability in the region.

1. Siegfried S. Hecker, “North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex: A Report,” available at http://cisac.stanford.edu/publications/north_koreas_yongbyon_nuclear_com… (accessed on 25 November 2010).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Sung-Ki Jung, “S. Korea Considers Redeploying U.S. Nukes,” Defence News, available at http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=5089548 (accessed on 25 November 2010).
5. “Seoul rules out redeployment of US nuclear weapons,” Hindustan Times, 26 November 2010.
6. Cropsey Seth, “Keeping the Pacific Pacific,” Foreign Affairs, available at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66752/seth-cropsey/keeping-the-pa… (accessed on 26 November 2010).

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/NorthKoreaShellsSouthKorea%E2%80%93IsitBait_sparmar_291110

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The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. IDSA has been consistently ranked over the last few years as one of the top think tanks in Asia.

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