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South Korea

By Barbara Demick.

Published by Granta (ISBN 978-1-84708-141-4)

Reviewed by Adam Dempsey, Research Associate, UK Defence Forum

Barbara Demick's coverage of the war in Sarajevo won the Robert F. Kennedy award and was also shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2001 she became correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, covering both North and South Korea. As in common with many journalists, it proved difficult for Demick to visit the North. When she eventually gained access reporting was severely limited by the regime's employment of minder's to guide journalists on pre-planned tours. There was never any conversation with 'ordinary' North Korean citizens. Yet through contact with defectors to the South, Demick was able to paint a picture of life in North Korea. Just as the title of the book suggests, life in the last remaining bona fide Communist state is nothing much to envy.

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26th March: The Cheonan, a Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) corvette sailing close to the disputed inter-Korean maritime border, sank after an explosion split the vessel in two. Fifty-eight sailors manage to escape but another forty-six were killed.

27th March: As the ROKN continued its search for survivors, South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, calls emergency security meetings and orders an investigation into the sinking. With speculation mounting of a possible North Korean torpedo attack, South Korea's Defence Minister indicated to Parliament that the authorities would undertake a full investigation. It was also emphasised that it was still too early to connect the sinking of the ship to North Korea.

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North Korea and South Korea have reportedly traded artillery fire Nov. 23 across the disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea to the west of the peninsula. Though details are still sketchy, South Korean news reports indicate that around 2:30 p.m. local time, North Korean artillery shells began landing in the waters around Yeonpyeongdo, one of the South Korean-controlled islands just south of the NLL. North Korea has reportedly fired as many as 200 rounds, some of which struck the island, injuring at least 10 South Korean soldiers, damaging buildings and setting fire to a mountainside. South Korea responded by firing some 80 shells of its own toward North Korea, dispatching F-16 fighter jets to the area and raising the military alert to its highest level.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has convened an emergency Cabinet meeting, and Seoul is determining whether to evacuate South Koreans working at inter-Korean facilities in North Korea. The barrage from North Korea was continuing at 4 p.m. Military activity appears to be ongoing at this point, and the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff are meeting on the issue. No doubt North Korea's leadership is also convening.

The North Korean attack comes as South Korea's annual Hoguk military exercises are under way. The exercises — set to last nine days and including as many as 70,000 personnel from all branches of the South Korean military — span from sites in the Yellow Sea including Yeonpyeongdo to Seoul and other areas on the peninsula itself. The drills have focused in particular on cross-service coordination and cooperation in recent years.
North Korean Artillery Attack on a Southern Island

Low-level border skirmishes across the demilitarized zone and particularly the NLL are not uncommon even at the scale of artillery fire. In March, the South Korean naval corvette ChonAn was sunk in the area by what is broadly suspected to have been a North Korean torpedo, taking tensions to a peak in recent years. Nov. 22 also saw South Korean rhetoric about accepting the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula, though the United States said it has no plans at present to support such a redeployment.

While the South Korean reprisals — both artillery fire in response by self-propelled K-9 artillery and the scrambling of aircraft — thus far appear perfectly consistent with South Korean standard operating procedures, the sustained shelling of a populated island by North Korea would mark a deliberate and noteworthy escalation.

The incident comes amid renewed talk of North Korea's nuclear program, including revelations of an active uranium-enrichment program, and amid rumors of North Korean preparations for another nuclear test. But North Korea also on Nov. 22 sent a list of delegates to Seoul for Red Cross talks with South Korea, a move reciprocated by the South, ahead of planned talks in South Korea set for Thursday. The timing of the North's firing at Yeonpyeongdo, then, seems to contradict the other actions currently under way in inter-Korean relations. With the ongoing leadership transition in North Korea, there have been rumors of discontent within the military, and the current actions may reflect miscommunications or worse within the North's command-and-control structure, or disagreements within the North Korean leadership.

Read more: North Korean Artillery Attack on a Southern Island | STRATFOR

Reproduced with the permission of STRATFOR


Recent American and South Korean intelligence reports speculate that North Korea may be preparing for its first nuclear tests since 2009. Satellite images show that North Korea has dug an 800 metre tunnel at its test site at Punggye-ri. Experts believe that the tunnel will be ready for a nuclear test when it reaches 1 kilometre, which South Korea believes may occur in early April.

Adam Dempsey, Research Associate for the UK Defence Forum, has recently undertaken a study of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. His report outlines the development of Pyongyang's programme and ballistic missile capabilities.

In keeping with many aspects of North Korean life, Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme is shrouded in secrecy and subject to speculation. Official estimates of North Korea's programme are varied and remain primarily reliant on open-source intelligence. To complicate matters, Pyongyang's nuclear missile development may have benefitted from illegal exchanges involving the A.Q. Khan network.

Adam's full report is available here.


By Tom French

The recent shelling by the North Korean People's Army of Yeonpyeong Island and the resultant civilian and military casualties have raised many questions about the possible causes behind, and responses to, this clear act of aggression.


Much like the original outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the exact cause or 'who fired first' in this incident may never be known. However, it seems that the North Korean shelling began ostensibly in response to an artillery exercise by the South Korean military. Nevertheless, the bombardment is believed by most observers, and crucially, the South Korean leadership, to have been a premeditated act of aggression.

Much like the sinking of the Cheonan on 26 March the incident has provoked a flurry of speculation about the North's motivation behind these highly risky acts of aggression. Some have speculated that the attack could be a response to the recent hosting of the G20 by the South, with the North unwilling to be upstaged by its southern neighbour. Others have argued that the attack could be a result of the recent statements by a US diplomat that Americans would not reward Northern provocations by returning to the six party talks. The often advanced theory of blaming of the incident on 'rogue elements' within the Northern military is also a common theme. No doubt these and the clichés of the North as a 'mad', 'bad' or even 'sad' regime will fill much of the commentary on the incident.

These rather flimsy arguments seem to unravel when confronted by the question: why would the North risk so much over such minor incidents as it would almost certainly be defeated if it came to war? A more credible explanation lies in attempting to assume the perspective of the Kim regime and the choices available to it.

Caught in the midst of a succession crisis, the ailing Kim Jong-il seems to want to ensure the smooth transition of power to his heir apparent Kim Jong-un. A useful tool in this seems to be winning the support of both the military and people through 'victories' over the United States and its South Korean 'puppet'. As noted in B.R. Myers's recent book The Cleanest Race this form of anti American / South Korean propaganda is very common in the North and a the sinking of a southern warship and the bombardment of a military base offer the chance to renew and strengthen this narrative and with it the interconnected Kim dynasty personality cult and central, highly respected position of the military.


The cessation of the bombardment and the apparent absence of any further acts of aggression seem to prove that the North doesn't seek a wider conflict, however the full response of the South is yet to be revealed. As noted in a previous Defence Viewpoints article, three possibilities lay open to the Southern government, sanctions, a blockade of some kind and finally, military action. It seems that the South too does not yet seek an escalation of the incident however the remarks by Southern President Lee Myung-bak that the attack would be met "through action", not just words may hint at a tougher line over the coming days. It seem Southern patience is wearing thin and this coupled with the inevitable public outcry and the clear opportunity the attack provides for a strike against the North's nuclear facilities, (including the recently discovered centrifuges at the Yongbyon nuclear complex) might yet result in a hardening of the South's attitude towards its northern neighbour.

About the author

Tom French is a graduate of Durham University and is currently completing his PhD in Northeast Asian Security from Southampton University.


28th May: South Korea sends the findings of the international inquiry into the sinking of the Cheonan to China. Defence Minister Kim Tae-young also commented on conflicting government statements about the disappearance of two North Korean submarines from the South's radars around the time of the attack. At first the government said there was no connection with the sinking, but a later statement indicated that those were the submarines responsible for the attack on the Cheonan. Initially South Korea made a judgement based on its own intelligence data. However additional information was eventually obtained from the international investigation team.

1st June:North Korea's National Defence Commission held a press conference to discredit evidence that it was responsible for the attack on the Cheonan. For the South, the press conference confirmed that the members of the National Defence Commission had in the past been involved in previous inter-Korean meetings.

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By Thomas French

North Korea's 'Falklands Moment'?

Argentina launched its bid to recapture the Falkland Islands from Britain in 1982 largely in response to bolster the Junta's tottering legitimacy and popularity. This move aimed at diverting the people's attention from the country's chronic economic problems and the regime's ongoing human rights violations through uniting them in a patriotic struggle in defence of their homeland.

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By Tom French

Cranfield University's Hazel Smith once argued that the major flaws in most analyses of North Korea were the assumptions that the communist regime was either; 'bad' i.e. 'evil', malevolent or belligerent; or 'mad', irrational, unknowable or unpredictable. The sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in disputed waters on 26th March by a North Korean submarine, as now tacitly admitted by the South Korean Defence Ministry, at first glance clearly seems to fit Smith's definitions, being classified by most as a belligerent, or even irrational, act.

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By Tom French

With the recent apparent concessions by the Iranian government over death by stoning in the face of western pressure, this seeming victory for 'soft power', begs the question whether similar policies might work on North Korea (DPRK).

The EU seems to think so, having recently passed a resolution on human rights in North Korea, which included the appointment of a special representative and calls on the DPRK to 'abolish the death penalty and end to the ongoing grave, widespread and systematic human rights violations, public executions and extra-judicial executions'.

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