03.11.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Is there tension on the border between the two Koreas?

6464563A string of incidents in October, 2014 between the the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) is swelling up as “a new round of the Korean crisis” (almost at the scale of a second Cheonan), but in fact everything is much simpler, as well as more more complicated.

Let us analyze the incidents in detail. The exchange of fire in the Yellow Sea, which that took place on the 7th of October 7, 2014 was the first of them. The place where it happened is a so-called Northern limit line (NLL). It NLL was established unilaterally during the Korean War, by the UN forces, who had fought on the Southerners’ side. Pyongyang does not recognize that naval border. Such disputes regularly ignite confrontation in that area between the warships of the South and the North guarding the waters of the Yellow Sea. This time, a patrol boat of the North Korean Navy trespassed the Northern limit line and entered as far as 900 metres into the waters of the Republic of Korea (ROK). A South Korean guided-missile ship warned the DPRK’s vessel demanding it to leave the Southern waters and fired several warning shots. The Northerners, on their part, responded with fire, which prompted the ROK’s ship to shoot again. After that the DPRK’s vessel left the disputed waters.

Explaining the incident back at that time, the spokesman for the Armed Forces of South Korea, underlined that both ships did not “shoot to kill” and so had not caused any damage to each other. The Northerners had fired from such a distance that they certainly could not have reached the adversary, and the Southerners had aimed not at the ship but close to it yet making it clear that if intended, they could have hit the mark. Indeed, the situation when patrol boats evidently exchanged fire, happened for the first time in the last 5 years (before that a similar incident took place on October 10, 2009). However, but over this that period of time (2009 –2014) there were many other incidents, especially back in 2010, when the probability of a conflict really was non-zero, (and in December 2010, the Russian Federation even had to convoke a UN Security Council meeting on that issue).

My opinion is that what happened on October 7, 2014 was an ordinary “exchange of “compliments” between the two neighbors (as it happens between them from time to time), however, both parties were clearly refraining from the escalation of the situation.

In another incident, on October 10 this year, the Northerners responded with fire after balloons with propaganda leaflets, launched by South Korean activists, flew onto the DPRK’s territory. South Korea has been conducting a physiological war against the DPRK since 2008 when Lee Myung-bak came into power , and that kind of action has become widely used since 2010, when the South Korean patrol ship “Cheonan” sank in the Yellow Sea. Usually, anti-communist organizations are have been the ones that to do this kind of thing, and the leaflets they proliferate would differ insignificantly in their tone and content from those by Goebbels. DPRK’s government has repeatedly urged Seoul to stop these moves and threatened to fire upon the territory from which the activists conduct the propaganda proliferation. This time, “Fighters for free North Korea” launched 10 large gas-filled balloons with 200 thousand propaganda leaflets attached to them towards DPRK. North Korea responded with fire from small arms, aiming at the balloons, not at the people (there were no reports about any victims). South Korea reciprocated with fire of the same kind (no victims as well), after which the Ministry for Reunificationof Unification of ROK recommended the organizations uniting defectors from North Korea to restrain from sending propaganda leaflets to the North.

This recommendation was given at the time of the emerging opportunity to resume the dialog between the two Koreas and the spokesmen for both South and North Korea agreed to renew the high-level talks. This happened during the visit of the DPRK’s official delegation of the DPRK to Incheon. The delegation arrived there on the 4th of October 4, 2014 in order to take part in the closing ceremony of the Asian games. The delegationAmong the delegation were included two de-facto senior assistants of Kim Jong-un – the head Head of the Central Political management Department of the the Korean People’s ArmyDPRK’s the Armed forces, Hvan Ben- Ssong, and the secretary secretary of the Workers’ Party of KoreaKorean Labour Party, Choe Ryong-haeChoe Ren Hoe, and as well as TPK Kim Yan- gGon, who is responsible for the Pyongyang’s policy towards Seoul. Their partners were the Prime Minister, Jung Hong-won, an assistant of South Korea’s President in Foreign Relations and Security, Kim Kwan-jin; and the Unification MinisterMinister for Reunification, Ryoo Kihl-jaeRu Gil Chje.

It should be noted that a North Korean delegation of such a high level had never visited the South before. Even at the time of secret visits that , which happened when Park Chung-hee Pak Djon Hi Wa was in power, the status of the meetings’ participants was lower. That is why the results of the visit in fact deserve the much more attention of the analysts much more, especially given the fact that at this time, there is information that North Korea has partially or completely suspended the activity at the reactor of Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, where they produce weapon-grade plutonium.

However, the news that does es not depict North Korea as an “insane terrorist regime” and, moreover, shows that it is able to acts differently, somehow doeses not get that much attention from people who call themselves experts. It is much easier to find spread various rumors about “the disappearance of Kim Jong-UnKin Chen Yn ” or violation of human rights.

The next incident – exchange of fire – took place on the October 19, 2014 on the land border between the South and North Korea. According to the Southerners, 10 ten North Korean soldiers started to approach the military demarcation line, which prompted the South Korean frontier post to fire several warning shots. The Northerners fired in response and then the shooting continued for 10 ten more minutes without any victims or wounded. It is also said, that either a day before or the same morning, North Korean soldiers had already approached the demilitarized zone, but after a couple of warnings made through loud speakers or warning shots on the part of the South border patrol, they left the area without engaging in any shooting.

The spokesman for the ROK Ministry Of Defence, Kim Min Sok, later explained that South Korean soldiers shot in such a way that bullets would not cross the border between the two Koreas, the Northerners had fired directly at the frontier post and it bears the traces of their bullets. From his point of view, the North was preparing for further launches of balloons with propaganda leaflets in order to provoke an incident and shift the blame onto South Korea. North Korea did not give any comments on the shooting. I will focus on analyzing this incident and we will devote the situation with the leafletsin a separate study.

From On the other side, we can also note some efforts of ROK’s government, which also has been making attempts to eradicate reduce the grounds for any aggravation of tension. For example, the South Korea dismantled a metal structure in the form of a Christmas tree, which had been topping the 155 m high Egibon Hill in the town of Gimpo (Gyeonggi province), for the past 43 years. The construction was installed near the border between the two Koreas (so that it could be easily seen from the territory of North Korea), and was one of the sources of tensions between the South and the North, serving as “a physiological weapon”. For the New Year and Christmas, the structure was was decorated with lights and was positioned as a chance – for “those who had been deprived of the Holy Day by the bloody regime” – to witness the celebration.

The Tree Lighting Ceremony had been abolished in 2004, but in 2014, after the sinking of the ship “Cheonan”, the tradition was renewed.

However, in December 2011, when DPRK was in mourning for Kim Jong-il, there was no Christmas tree lighting, as and there was none also in 2013, after the direct threats from Pyongyang.

The official reason for “removing the tree” was not, however, due to the desire “not to tease” North Korea. According to the representative of the Ministry for Defence of South Korea, dismantling of the installation was had been planned last year when it was determined found that it the tree was ramshackle obsolete and potentially dangerous. Dismantling was suspended back then because of financial problems, but as soon as funding was available, the construction was immediately dismantled.

And here is one more news item on the topic. The Opening Ceremony Of Theof the First Joint South And North Korean Film Festival took place on October 25, 2014 in Seoul.. The Minister of Reunification of South Korea visited the ceremony. During this film festival, 20 cinema theatres showed 8 Korean films for free, including the North Korean film – “Sister” (of 1993).

This is the first time in the country’s history when that a North Korean film has beenis presented in the cinemas of South Korea, sincebecause, in fact, any demonstration of North Korean art, which (even if it isin case of an innocent melody), is prosecuted in accordance with the law on national security.

In terms of meeting each other half way, this move is as important as the cessation of activities in Yongbyon.

All things considered, I would say, that there is no crisis escalation. However, the on-going process is rather contradictory: in both countries there are those who wish for escalation of tensions, as well as those who advocate Korean unification. What is more, even in difficult situations the parties do not seek bigger conflict, but limit themselves to routine rhetoric or actions.

Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.