South Korea sent a complaint to North Korea Tuesday in response to the North conducting artillery drills Monday near the inter-Korean maritime border in waters west of the Korean peninsula.
Kim Jong Un ordered the drill using coastal artillery on the Changrin Islets, which are slightly north of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) that forms the maritime border between the two Koreas, the North’s state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
While KCNA did not say when the drill took place, the South Korean military reported that it had detected several sounds that indicated the use of artillery shells on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the Yeonpyeong bombardment.
On Nov. 23, 2010, the North shelled Yeonpyeong island, killing four South Korean residents and injuring 19, while causing severe damage to the entire island. South Korea returned fire shortly afterward in an incident that caused inter-Korean relations to sour sharply.
The South’s Korea Herald reported that North Korea seemingly conducted the artillery drill on the anniversary of the last major skirmish between the two Koreas to “highlight the provocative nature of its action.”
According to South Korea’s complaint, the North Korean drill violates an inter-Korean military pact signed Sept. 19 last year to prevent border skirmishes.
“We made it clear yesterday that North Korea’s coastal artillery drill is in violation of the Sept. 19 military agreement,” said Choi Hyun-soo, the ministry’s spokeswoman, during a press briefing.
Saturday’s drill occurred in a buffer zone where, according to the agreement, live-fire drills and other exercises are banned.
North Korea experts told RFA’s Korean Service that the artillery drills were consistent with Pyongyang’s strategy of brinkmanship—the North’s tried and true policy of lashing out at South Korea and the United States, hoping for more favorable engagement from them.
“This is a case where we have to worry about Kim Jong-un’s control inside North Korea,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.
“He has failed his elites on multiple occasions in the last two years and especially on getting sanctions relief. He has therefore increased his coercion of the United States and the ROK (rather than compromising) to get the deal the North wants, and he is threatening far more serious escalations after his year-end deadline for a deal with the United States,” said Bennett.
“[Kim] likely violated the September 2018 agreement to grab headlines—North Korea is just not getting much press with [the] impeachment and other things going on, and Kim needs to get press as part of his coercion campaign,” Bennett told RFA.
David Maxwell, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told RFA that the U.S. and South Korea need to remain resolute despite North Korea’s provocations.
“The United States and South Korea need to maintain sanctions and not succumb to the North's coercive demands,” said Maxwell, adding, “They also need to conduct ROK/US training to sustain alliance readiness.”
Maxwell called on Seoul to be more proactive in its response to the drills.
“The South needs to do more than express regret. Kim is conducting a full court maximum press against the ROK/U.S. alliance to try to coerce the alliance into providing concessions, namely sanctions relief. First and foremost the alliance should never lift sanctions in response to this rogue behavior,” he said.
Maxwell also suggested that the drills were a means for Kim to influence domestic opinion.
“Kim may be facing enormous internal pressure from the military and regime elite because he has had three meetings with Trump and he has failed to get sanctions relief, as most in North Korea have expected since [last year’s first U.S.-North Korea summit in] Singapore. Therefore he must 'act out" to demonstrate his strength to his people and put pressure on the alliance,” Maxwell said.
Meanwhile, two South Korean experts similarly saw the drills as a means to coerce engagement from either the U.S. or South Korea.
“The firing of the coastal artillery is a completely different kind of provocation than using new weapons systems, including the missile launch on May 4th,” Professor Park Won-Gon from Handong University told RFA.
“I think the goal is to send a message to the U.S. that if it does not come up with tactics that North Korea wants, tensions on the Korean Peninsula could escalate again, like in 2017,” he added.
“It’s actually hard without the help of South Korea,” said Cho Hanbum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
“It’s not that [the North Koreans] don’t want to have talks. They just want to create a relationship with South Korea in a way they want. It is about creating inter-Korean relations that they want,” he added.
RFA contacted the White House, the Department of Defense, and the Department of State for statements, but in each case, they either declined to comment or did not respond.
Additional reporting by Hee Jung Yang and Seungwook Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Translation by Leejin Jun.