On November 23rd, 2020, South Korea pointed out the “10th anniversary of North Korea’s deadly artillery strike on the South Korean island on the border”, which killed two marines and two civilians, with more than a dozen injured.
During a memorial ceremony at the Seoul National Cemetery, Defense Minister Suh Wook vowed to protect peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula by force. Memorial ceremonies were held in several parts of the country, and during those befitting speeches of respect were given, as were tributes of flowers and odes to those who lost their lives.
The November 23rd, 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, a front-line island near a maritime border that runs through the Yellow Sea but is under dispute with DPRK, is now being positioned as the first attack committed by North Korea on South Korean territory since the 1950-1953 Korean War. Along with that, nowadays media outlets in South Korea report “relatively honestly” that, as the DPRK sees it, the attack constituted a response to live fire exercises that caused shells to fall into its territorial waters. In contrast, Seoul affirms that no firing took place during the exercise.
The author’s experience demonstrates that people have short memories, and that is why it is worth taking note of the details that set the real story apart from the propaganda put forth by South Korea.
The process of exacerbation began in 2010 with the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan – something for which it was decided to blame North Korea, despite a series of oddities. This move let Lee Myung-bak’s conservative government impose sanctions against the North, and break off “unnecessary ties.” This tendency to terminate the agreements reached at the 2007 summit was visible from the very beginning of Lee’s rule, but it is one thing to openly break a promise, albeit given by a former president, and quite another to give respond properly to an armed provocation.
Lee Myung-bak made an entire series of diplomatic motions, including filing a complaint with the UN Security Council, but which was unequivocally supported only by Japan and, to a certain extent, by the US despite the efforts put forth by South Korea, the UN Security Council’s statement on the Cheonan contained no direct charges against the DPRK. In essence, it expressed sympathy about the tragedy itself, and the hope that it would not happen again.
Even the statements made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were marked by a lower level of intensity, while Russia and China took an incredulous, wait-and-see attitude, because according to one Russian military experts the version put forth by Seoul did not just contain a hint of deception, but was glaringly obvious.
It soon became dangerous to doubt the official version that was put forward, and the opposition just transformed its criticism into “how could something like this happen”. Especially since the picture of the Army’s sloppiness uncovered during the investigation turned out to be very telling, and certain high-profile cases even echoed throughout the Russian media.
Lee Myung-bak responded by reinforcing combat training, which pursued two objectives: to genuinely raise the level of combat readiness on the part of the South Korean Army and to actively get on North Korea’s nerves. Military maneuvers with varying scales of intensity took place virtually every month, chiefly in the immediate vicinity of the North Korean border. In addition, ultra-conservative representatives from the Army hinted that they would not be able to restrain themselves, and that if its hussars “entered the waters of the DPRK for five minutes”, or “fired at the North’s maritime territory, pretending that they accidentally missed”, they would turn a blind eye.
And so, against the backdrop of large-scale military exercises conducted by the South Korean Army to get on North Korea’s nerves, and in which up to 70,000 people took part, on November 23rd, 2010 North Korean artillery opened fire on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Following that bombardment, two marines and two civilians were killed, and at least 18 people were injured.
As the first artillery skirmish between the Koreas since the 1970s, some experts were quick to call it seemingly “the most serious incident” to have occurred since the Korean War. Although it would be more accurate to describe it as the most serious incident in the past two decades: the North Korean commando raid on Seoul in 1968, the murder of US officers in the demilitarized zone in 1976, or an attempt on the life of South Korean dictator Chun Doo-hwan in 1981 exacerbated the situation a great deal more.
Against the backdrop of this new convolution in the exacerbation process, two issues escaped, as it were, most media outlets’ attention. The first is a telephone message from the North to the South protesting the exercises that raised the issue of whether this is all preparation for an invasion: it is worth remembering that 70,000 is the number of the first echelon of the DPRK army, which began the hostilities in 1950. Large-scale maneuvers along the border the DPRK zone is traditionally perceived as a dress rehearsal, or some kind of attempt to cover, an armed invasion of its territory. South Koreans, however, responded something like: “in our own territorial waters, we can do whatever we want”.
The second one is South Korea’s acknowledgement that artillery exercises were held during the exercises held that were directed toward the area from which the strike was then carried out by North Korea. South Koreans claim that they did not shoot directly north, toward the DPRK, but to the west – however, if you look at the border in the area, generally speaking this direction also leads “toward the enemy”.
Strange coincidences and random events were abundant, be it the “accidental shooting towards the North” that happened five days later (the shell exploded in the South Korean half of the DMZ after almost reaching the border) because the “howitzer fired itself”. Or South Korean marines shelling a South Korean aircraft, which they had mistaken for North Korean military transport. The marines missed, otherwise a tragedy similar to the history of Flight MH17 could have occurred, since they could have easily pinned the shelling on the North.
In this worsening situation, both sides started talking about provocations. However, the author, both then and now, has said that this time the situation is more complicated, and we are not dealing with an insidious plan whose threads run up to the very top, but with a kind of “legitimate accident”. All these incidents took place against the backdrop of large-scale military exercises, in which the factor of “playing on nerves” occupies a rather important place – and in these kinds of situations that entail constant psychological stress, sooner or later a breakdown occurs when someone’s finger twitches on the trigger, or someone’s sudden movements are seen as the beginning of an attack.
It is worth adding to this the peculiarities inherent in modern warfare, and the necessity of acting quickly, without wasting time on thinking and double-checking information. And there is the atmosphere of mutual hostility, when an opponent’s actions are interpreted in the most “ominous” ways possible, and explanations concerning conspiracy plans will prevail over attempts to understand whether the event was “accidental”.
Despite the fact that from the official point of view the scale of the conflict was greater (the territory of the country was bombarded, civilians were killed) the Republic of Korea did not initiate a discussion of this incident at the UN Security Council. And this may mean that during a comprehensive investigation, more facts could emerge that would make the South’s position even more controversial and vulnerable than with the history of the naval corvette, following which the UN Security Council did not point to Pyongyang as the perpetrator of the incident.
When South Korea was about to conduct artillery exercises in the Yellow Sea on an even larger scale on December 18-21, 2010, North Korea warned that in response to this it would execute an even stronger strike than it did in November. Concerned about escalating tensions, Russia called a meeting of the UN Security Council. And although the parties were unable to even agree on the level of a joint statement, tensions have eased slightly, and maneuvers have become less demonstrative.
This means that the story about the shelling of the island is, in many ways, a story about the fact that teasing the DPRK is more dangerous than it seems, but among the conservative military or NGOs there are sufficient numbers of people who are confident that, in this instance, they will get away with it. For example, that was the case with Pak Sang-hak, when the distribution of leaflets that was done in breach of the inter-Korean agreements almost caused a similar shelling of the border area that was slated to be the area to release the next batch of balloons. And today there are those who, for some reason, believe that Biden’s victory will untie their hands, and that they can then flex their muscles with impunity with respect to the North.
Let the memorial that stands to the lost be an eternal warning to such swashbucklers.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.