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Conflict on the Korean Peninsula – a Changing Status Quo?

On Monday last week, North and South Korea reached a deal to defuse the tensions that have been brewing on the peninsula over the past three weeks.

A recent spate of incidents, including the mine explosion that injured two South Korean soldiers earlier last month and an exchange of live artillery fire on 20 and 21 August, escalated to South Korea broadcasting propaganda into North Korea for the first time in over 10 years and North Korea declaring a “quasi-state of war”.

The new peace deal represents a concession for North Korea, who initiated dialogue several days before the deadline that they had unilaterally imposed for South Korea to stop all broadcasts.

South Korea maintained an uncompromising stance in this most recent dispute. President Park Guen-hye confirmed that the broadcasting of propaganda would not stop until the North issued a formal apology for the mine incident. South Korea further clarified their opinion in their response to North Korea’s shelling: South Korea dispatched three dozen artillery rounds in response to the four shells fired by North Korea.

This forceful response, combined with the continued broadcasting of propaganda, was successful in bringing North Korea to the bargaining table. The joint statement released by the two governments states that North Korea “regrets” the land mine explosion, a rare admission that the South can choose interpret as an apology.

North Korea agreed to lift its “quasi-state of war” status, and last Wednesday South Korea reduced their high-level combat readiness on the border.

These positive signs of conciliation were tempered by conflicting reports on North Korean submarine activity.

North Korea deployed 50 of its 77-strong fleet of submarines on 21 August, leading to speculation that the North was preparing for conflict even as it participated in peace talks with South Korea in the DMZ.

In the broader context of the dispute this action does not seem overtly aggressive. South Korea’s military was put on high alert and its government publicised consultations with the US on opportunities for America to provide strategic support.

Although a South Korean military official reported last Tuesday that the submarines had “shown signs of returning back to there home bases” there has since been much speculation on the exact location of the vessels, with claims that they are operating off-radar and remain unaccounted for.

A South Korean military official has described the deployment as “unprecedented”. Indeed, this large-scale manoeuvre risks posed a threat to shipping traffic around the peninsula, major ports in the area, and South Korean vessels. Further, the submarines exhibit North Korea’s second-strike capability, emphasising the capacity to retaliate against any strike.

It is clear that even though this current dispute has been resolved, it will be hard to foster trust on the peninsula. Even as North Korea appears to be complying with parts of the peace agreement, a covertly patrolling submarine fleet undermines any semblance of stability.

Due to the hermetic nature of North Korea, it is impossible to know whether the submarines a) did return to port following the agreement, b) continued patrolling until the completion of the US-South Korean military drills, c) returned to their pens due to their limited 3-day capacity or because of the bad weather forecast, or d) are still patrolling undetected.

This kind of uncertainty makes anticipating North Korea’s actions a difficult endeavour, amplifying the potential for dangerous miscalculation.

This incident illustrates the ambiguity of Kim Jong-un’s defence policy and highlights the centrality of nuclear weapons to North Korean military doctrine. When threatened, North Korea relies heavily on their nuclear stockpile. This, in combination with ongoing internal rhetoric about the threats the North faces (no doubt bolstered by the recent displays of US-South Korean military cooperation), means it is unlikely that North Korea will engage fruitfully with further Six Party Talks on disarmament.

Indeed, the KCNA reported on Thursday that Kim Jong-un declared to the Central Military Commission that the agreement had been reached because of the North’s nuclear capability, rather than the success of diplomacy.

A takeaway from the ‘August crisis’ is that South Korea has shown itself to be serious about applying friction to counter acts of aggression from North Korea. Broadcasting propaganda has proven to be a useful tool in bringing North Korea to the bargaining table, and this was, in combination with threats of further American military engagement, likely responsible for wresting an ‘apology’ from the North.

Although Kim’s regime benefits from a carefully managed “quasi-state of war”, the South’s strong position in this most recent stand off may have surprised him. It remains to be seen how the resolution to the August crisis will impact Kim’s calculations in further confrontations.

Harriet Ellis is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Will De Freitas (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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