Yeonpyeong Shelling Summation (1): Context and Causes in Hindsight – UPDATED: More in the Comments



Last week, I noted that I was drafting an interpretation of the NK shelling of Yeonpyeong island on November 24 for the Korean National Defense University. I am grateful for the many comments on received. My posting this week will represent my full thinking after three weeks of posting and comments and will be submitted for publication early next week. I would appreciate comments and thoughts no later than Monday. Thank you.

Part 2 is here; part 3 is here


I identify four likely causes for the recent North Korean (NK) shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and argue nonetheless for a policy of retaliatory restraint. Two short-term causes are, 1. the regime’s domestic need to bolster the non-existent military credentials of Kim Jong-Un in order to ensure a successful transition in a hyper-militarized political system, and 2. to embarrass South Korea (SK) after the successful hosting of the G-20, which implicitly contrasted with NK’s worsening dysfunction and poverty. A third, structural cause is the regime’s permanent, post-Cold War legitimacy crisis – NK’s existential requirement for regular tension with SK in order to explain its continued existence as a separate poorer, unhealthier, unhappier Korean state despite the collapse of communism and, especially, of East Germany. A fourth, ‘permissive’ cause is China’s continuing refusal to leverage its influence over NK in order to indefinitely prevent the emergence of a unified, populous, wealthy, nationalist, democratic, American-allied Republic of Korea on its border. Unfortunately, SK’s post-Yeonpyeong responses are tightly constrained by the extreme vulnerability of South Korea’s enormous northwestern (Incheon-Seoul-Gyeonggi) urban agglomeration. 50% of SK’s population lives within 50 miles of the Demilitarized Zone; escalatory, kinetic tit-for-tat scenarios from loosened rules of engagement place them in tremendous jeopardy. I counsel short-term restraint coupled with a medium-term decentralization of SK out of the northwest, significant military expansion, and refocused government effort to build genuine popular, not merely formal-constitutional, commitment to win a grinding Cold War-style stalemate eventuating in NK’s collapse (akin to America’s slow reduction of the USSR).


1. Context: Nothing New

North Korea (NK) has a long history of provocations against South (SK), in which context the Yeonpyeong shelling is better understood as neither unique nor a step toward war. Much of the media commentary has exaggerated the escalatory potential of this crisis, generating a clear possibility for a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, hyperbolic commentary that SK ‘honor’ is at stake in the ‘worst crisis since the war’ raises pressure on SK elites to respond with sterner measures, thereby worsening the very crisis they seek to de-escalate. Indeed, given that more casualties were suffered in the Cheonan incident (46) than Yeonpyeong (4), and that NK knew more clearly that a surprise-attack sinking would kill more South Koreans than the more random artillery fire against Yeonpyeong, NK is far more culpable for the earlier attack. SK rage this time is disproportionate to NK’s track record of such behavior.

A few incidents are worth recalling which diminish the uniqueness of the Yeonpyeong shelling and therefore mitigate the calls for looser rules of engagement (RoE): the 1968 attempt to assassinate Park Chung-hee, the 1976 tree-cutting incident, the 1983 cabinet bombing, the 1987 KAL 858 bombing, the Yellow Sea skirmishes of 1999, 2002, and 2009, and the 2010 Cheonan sinking. None of these incidents led to war; many were far worse than Yeonpyeong; despite humiliation, post-hoc restraint was ultimately the safest course given SK vulnerability (point 3.1 below).

2. Four Causes

Causal attribution of NK behavior is classic kremlinology, subject to large information failures due to NK secrecy and disinformation. My reasoning below is historical (previous NK behavior as indicators of the future) and analogical (how other late stalinist systems and aging dictatorships generally behave). I posit four causes:

2.1. Short Term 1: The Kim Family Transition

Since NK’s mid-1990s move toward ‘military-first’ politics, military prowess, whether genuine or manufactured, has become central to legitimizing rule in NK’s increasingly militarized polity. Kim Jong-Il rules not as president or prime minister, but as the chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC). The North Korean People’s Army (KPA) is increasingly the central prop in a regime notably lacking a justifying ideology in the wake of the collapse of communism (point 2.3 below). Military factionalization is common in aging communist systems, and dictatorships generally, and the next Kim, Jong-Un, desperately requires military credentials to hold the rickety, corrupt system together when his father passes. Jong-Un has never served in the KPA, and his youth conflicts with traditional Korean norms of authority, in which age and experience legitimate hierarchy. To compensate, he was promoted to four-star general this fall and placed on the NDC last year. Manufacturing crisis like Yeonpyeong burnishes his minimal credentials further, and the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has hyped him as an artillery expert, suggesting a clear tie to the recent shelling. The leadership transition is likely to be more unstable this second time, as the Jong-Un is far less groomed and known in the relevant bureaucracies (KPA and the North Korean Workers Party [KWP]), and the economy is yet worse than in 1994.

2.1. Short Term 2: The G-20

Elites in both Koreas face a unique legitimacy problem, insofar as a second Korean political alternative exists for a people with a clear history of national unity. As with the previous divisions of Germany, Vietnam, and Yemen, both Koreas explicitly compete to be ‘the’ Korea and delegitimize the other. An important SK tactic in this competition has been to host major international functions such as sporting events, trade associations, and leadership conferences which bolster its global reputation as the ‘real’ Korea. This strategy has succeeded. NK is quite aware of the legitimacy threat it poses, and it has responded angrily, most notably in 1987, when it attempted to dissuade SK from holding the 1988 Olympics by bombing KAL 858. The long-term NK planning for the Yeonpyeong shelling indicates premeditation yet again (invalidating the KCNA claim that it was a response to local SK drills). The shelling clearly dampens the SK global afterglow of successfully hosting the G-20 the previous fortnight. SK regarded both 1988 and 2010 a global coming out. The 1988 Olympics showed that a previously poor underdeveloped country torn apart by war had bounced back through an economic miracle (two decades of double-digit GDP growth) and was wealthy and stable enough to hold a major international event. The contrast with brutalized, still poor NK was obvious.  In 2010, the Seoul G-20 was also regarded in SK as proof of Korea’s rank in the elite G-20. And now, NK is even poorer and worse off than in 1988. The comparison is quite stark. Some pique of NK responsive anger was likely in order to signal that the KPA is still the central force to be reckoned with in peninsular affairs.

17 thoughts on “Yeonpyeong Shelling Summation (1): Context and Causes in Hindsight – UPDATED: More in the Comments

  1. I’m curious how these sorts of incidents bolster his military credentials. Are you claiming he was likely actually involved in planning or carrying out the attack in order to prove his ability to command military units to the senior generals?

    I know the Kims like to claim any sort of possible achievement, but it must be harder to impress the military leadership than the general population.


    • The Kim family – the large, informal network of relatives placed throughout key government posts to maintain control – is terrified of a post-Kim Jong-Il military coup. The military knows the Kims are corrupt. They know NK can’t win the war. They know the system is on permanent life-suport from abroad. Particularly in the second echelon, there must lots of colonels and such with Gaddifi- or Nasser-like dreams of rejuvenation against the Corleone family-style gangsters that run NK. This was the whole reason for the military-first policy 15 years ago – to forestall a military coup. So anything that beefs up Kim Jong-un in the eyes of the military helps maintain the Kim-Corleone family that has bankrupted the state.


      • So is creating this kind of military tension showing the military that Kim Jong-un will maintain the military-first policy? It seems to me that increasing the tension increases the relative importance of the military in North Korean affairs. How does that legitimize Kim Jong-un or prevent a coup?


  2. Bob – sorry, my comments are probably too late. But I have 2 questions. First, hasn’t there been an acceleration of events coming out of NK? Specifically, the Cheonan sinking, the Yeonpyeong shelling, and the unveiling of significant new nuclear capabilities have all taken place this year. To me, the frequency of these provocations is noteworthy. Two, the shelling of a South Korean town seems like a more serious event than the Cheonan sinking despite the lower body count.


    • I do agree that there seems to be an acceleration recently. That is a puzzle I would explain under the pressure of the looming transition. Many others have endorsed that explanation, and I agree. What I don’t buy is that this is somehow a run-up to war. NK will lose; the military and the Kim family know that. These sorts of incidents serve other purposes, but not war preparation.

      I have gotten this argument that the Cheonan was not worse than Yeonpyeong from others too. Really? It seems to me that the body-count is major marker. Also, when NK fired on the Cheonan, it was in peacetime (or what passes for that in Korea), so the ship was totally unprepared. And that attack was very directed and precise. By contrast, NK fired dumb rounds at Yeonpyeong. They did not know with the exacitude of the Cheonan incident where the rounds would land. In short, the 4 deaths on the island were more random than the 46 on the ship. Doesn’t that strike you as greater culpability?


      • To the extent that the Koreas are still at war, the Cheonan was a viable military target. In Yeonpyeong they were targeting civilians, which to me seems like an escalation.


      • That strikes me as a legalism, because if you argue that the formal state of war is actually ‘hot’ rather than ‘cold,’ then everything becomes a target. So long as the armistice is real, then the Cheonan was off-limits. Also, it is not clear to me that NK planned on killing civilians. Artillery fire is more random than the torpedo. But much of this misses the point, IMO. The casualty figures are the real break-point to my mind.


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