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South Korea relives the Yeonpyeong attack by North Korea

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • November 29, 2011

    On November 23, 2011, South Korea marked the first anniversary of a deadly North Korean shelling of an island just south of the contested Yellow Sea border. It was on this day a year ago, North Korea launched the 180 rounds of artillery attack on Yeonpyeong, a front-line island approximately 7 miles (11 kilometres) from North Korean shores that is home to fishing families as well as military garrisons and killed two marines and two civilians. The shelling brought the threat of an all-out war back to the Korean peninsula. North Korea had then admitted launching the attack after warning the South not to carry out live-fire drills in the disputed waters dividing the two Koreas.

    South Korea held ceremonies and military drills to mark the anniversary and vowed to “never compromise” on attacks by North Korea. Seoul also put the Korean army on alert. Prime Minister Kim Hwang-Sik promised a tough response to any further attacks by the North. Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin also said the “military has been gnashing its teeth with rage over the past one year … and we have to sternly punish an enemy provocation”. The anniversary comes as diplomats from the two Koreas and the US are engaged in tentative moves towards diplomacy, discussing ways to resume talks aimed at swapping aid for the North’s disarmament.

    South Korea’s military staged major land, sea and air exercises near the flashpoint sea border on November 23, 2011, simulating a response to a new attack on “frontline” islands. The drill involved cutting edge F-15K fighter jets and K-9 long-range artillery pieces, rocket launchers armed with ground-attack missiles, and a 4,500-ton destroyer. The F-15K fighter jets trained for firing SLAM-ER air-to-ground missiles with a range of 278 km capable of knocking out targets in North Korea. To a mock attack by North Korean using 122-mm multiple launch rockets 12 km from Yeonpyeong Island, South Korean marines responded first with a volley of rounds from their K-9 howitzers before reporting the incident to their commanders. Army Cobra attack helicopters and navy vessels wrapped up the drill by attacking North Korean special forces approaching Baeknyeong island aboard hydrofoils. Baeknyeong is vulnerable to a landing attempt by the North due to its proximity to the communist country.

    The drill was intended to send a strong message to the North Korean rivals stationed within sight just kilometres away, and to their authoritarian leader, Kim Jong-Il. According to Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Lee Bung-woo, the exercise off Baengnyeong showcased far greater firepower than the South Korean military used in 2010 in response to the barrage of artillery showered on military garrisons and fishing villages near Yeonpyeong Island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Jung Seung-jo announced South Korean preparedness to “crush the enemy”. The drill was also intended to test the effectiveness of any future retaliation.

    A general view shows Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea. A year ago on November 23, North Korea unexpectedly raised the stakes in the decades-long dispute over its maritime border with South Korea by launching the first attack on a civilian area on the island since the war, and catapulting the neighbours to the brink of a new all-out conflict.
    Source: (accessed on November 23, 2011)

    President Lee Myung-bak has been pressing an official apology from the North for its deadly shelling. During a visit to the newly established Northwest Islands Defence Command tasked with guarding the tense western sea border and nearby islands, Lee expressed the hope that “North Korea will sometime state its official position for the sake of national reconciliation”. During a video conversation with Marine commanders stationed on Yeonpyeong and other islands, Lee called for a strong defence posture and readiness. He said, “North Korea makes provocations when we are weak. If we are strong, North Korea will not dare make provocations. … Our objective does not lie in going to war, but deterring war.” He urged the marine commanders not to “forgive enemy provocations”.

    Such strong words from the President were to reassure the people who criticized the government for responding passively to the Yeonpyeong shelling. Seoul’s delayed response drew heavy criticism and concern that it was unprepared for a North Korean provocation. At that time, the defence minister resigned and his successor Kim Kwan-jin pledged a fierce air strike if the North stages another attack. The shelling had come eight months after 46 seamen were killed in the sinking of a South Korean warship, Cheonan, which Seoul blamed on Pyongyang. Till this day, Pyongyang denies attacking the ship, and says the shelling of Yeonpyeong was in response to a “provocative” South Korean military exercise and because South Korea did not heed to the warning not to carry out live-fire drills in waters both Koreas claim as their territory.

    North Korea has disputed the maritime border, and does not recognize the maritime line drawn by the US-led UN Command at the close of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, technically leaving the peninsula in a state of war. Both the Koreas have been involved in three deadly naval gunfights in the Yellow Sea waters since 1999. North Korean vessels have crossed the Northern Limit Line below which North Korean boats are banned. The contested Yellow Sea border has been a flashpoint and has seen bloody naval clashes in 1999, 2002 and November 2010.

    Since the Cheonan incident in March 2010 and chastened by the attack in November 2010, South Korea has beefed up its military arsenal and strengthened its defence preparedness. It has spent millions of dollars, by installing additional radars, setting up a separate defence command and deploying precision-guided rockets designed to take out North Korea’s coastal artillery in the Yellow Sea area. It has also set up a separate defence command and deployed precision-guided rockets designed to take out North Korea’s hidden coastal artillery. It has tripled the numbers of the marines from 500 to 1,500 who are on round the clock patrol, and placed more tanks and artillery pieces within easy range of North Korea. Though the people of Yeonpyeong Island are familiar with the drill of the South Korean marines stationed on the island wherein they fire off shells periodically for practice, they remember with trepidation the devastating attack of November 2010. Though many residents fled after the incident, most have returned with their confidence buoyed by a beefed-up South Korean security presence.

    It is likely that the heavy military presence of South Korea in Yeonpyeong and on half a dozen other islands in the Yellow Sea off the North’s southwestern coast has deterred the North from staging another attack. The calm atmosphere could also be because of pressure from North Korea’s only major friend and ally, China. Though China never criticized North Korea for either attacking the island or torpedoing the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in March 2010, China has presumably demonstrated its desire for “stability” in the region and sent a subtle message to Kim Jong-Il that the succession will pass on peacefully if he exercises restraint. Both the US and South Korea believe that the shelling of November 2010 was probably in order to burnish the military credentials of Kim Jong-un, the youngest son and heir apparent of Kim Jong-Il. Seen from this perspective, it was likely that the attack was linked with the North’s opaque internal politics. Whether the intent of the shelling was to boost the largely unknown Kim Jong-un’s standing among the people is not important. What is important is that North Korea pushed itself further back to the brink of economic malaise and isolating itself further from the outside world. North Korea is not just a problem for South Korea, but for the entire Asia. Getting North Korea back into the world community poses a challenge. It also remains unclear as to when this will happen.