Foreign Relations & International Law

The Crisis on the Korean Peninsula and Its Surprising Resolution

Stephan Haggard
Wednesday, August 26, 2015, 7:02 AM

Seoul awoke yesterday to news of the agreement reached early in the morning between North and South Korea to calm down the current tensions. The crisis began with an August 4 mine attack that left two South Korean soliders severely maimed and included the first live-fire exchange across the DMZ in a long time. In an odd role reversal, the South Korean Yonhap news agency posted the English-language version of the agreement released by the North Korean news agency KCNA:

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Seoul awoke yesterday to news of the agreement reached early in the morning between North and South Korea to calm down the current tensions. The crisis began with an August 4 mine attack that left two South Korean soliders severely maimed and included the first live-fire exchange across the DMZ in a long time. In an odd role reversal, the South Korean Yonhap news agency posted the English-language version of the agreement released by the North Korean news agency KCNA:

Full Text of the Inter-Korean Agreement as released by the KCNA.

  1. The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future.
  2. The north side expressed regret over the recent mine explosion that occurred in the south side’s area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), wounding soldiers of the south side.
  3. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.
  4. The north side will lift the semi-war state at that time.
  5. The north and the south agreed to arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south on the occasion of the Harvest Moon Day this year and continue to hold such reunions in the future, too and to have a Red Cross working contact for it early in September.
  6. The north and the south agreed to vitalize NGO exchanges in various fields.

The text comes about as close to a North Korean apology as we are likely ever to see. John Everard—former British Ambassador to the North and also in Seoul—commented to me that Pyongyang hasn’t issued a statement like this since the 1976 Panmunjom ax murders.

The components of an apology include an acknowledgement that you committed the act in question, a sense of remorse, and a commitment not to do it again. The first element is arguably missing, and it is an important element. It is hard to interpret a statement of remorse if those offering it do not acknowledge the circumstances in the first place. But when placed in the context of the entire package, the formula of “we didn’t do it and we are not going to do it again” pretty clearly acknowledges that the August 4 mine incident was of North Korea’s doing. More importantly, the agreement acknowledges that the South’s propaganda loudspeakers will be turned off only if the North ceases and desists.

Let’s start with a timeline of the events involved in the current crisis:

July 22: ROK Army soldiers on a routine patrol last pass through the gate where the August 4 mine attack incident subsequently occurs. The location is on the southern side of the DMZ near Paju.

August 4: Two South Korean soldiers, both staff sergeants, are maimed after three mines are detonated 440 meters south of the Military Demarcation.

August 9: An investigation team led by Brigadier General Ahn Young-ho takes journalists to the site of the mine attacks. He claimed the mine was placed directly in the areas near the door of a gate and claims it could not have been caused by previously-undiscovered mines becoming dislodged.

August 10: The ROK Ministry of Defense releases a video of the explosion (uploaded on You Tube by the Korea Observer here). A look at the angle of the camera, the distance, terrain and foliage suggest that the mines could have been planted without being captured on tape. Kim Min-Seok, spokesman for the Ministry for National Defense claims that this was “a clear provocation from the North Korean military” and swears “a severe retaliation.” The South announces that it will resume propaganda broadcasts from speakers placed near the border. These had not been used for over a decade.

August 13: North Korea denies the allegations at the highest level. The National Defense Commission issues a statement denying the accusations and claiming that “the puppets stored up some of our military’s mines that it had collected and used them to concoct a slander.”

August 15: President’s Geun-hye Park’s Liberation Day address is devoted largely to North-South relations. She addresses land mine as violation of the armistice, but the tone of the speech is surprisingly conciliatory. She calls for a resumption of the stalled family reunifications, the construction of a peace park within the DMZ, and expanding sports and cultural exchanges between the two Koreas.

August 16: The North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula (CPRK) rejects President Park’s call for family reunification, a peace park, and more sports and cultural exchanges. The National Defense Commission threatens military retaliation against the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises.

August 17: US-ROK Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills start and will last until August 28. President Park says “North Korea’s landmine provocation in the DMZ was a clear military provocation in which North Korean forces illegally crossed the military demarcation line and attempted to slaughter South Korean troops.” The KPA launches its own propaganda speaker campaign on the Eastern side of the country.

August 19: A ROK military source claims that the KPA is ratcheting up its combat readiness posture by opening up weapons portholes and intensifying artillery training.

Things really heated up on August 20:

  • At 3:53 p.m. ROK army detects what it believes is a 5mm anti-aircraft shell fired from North Korean territory into a mountainous area near the border within the DMZ near Yeoncheon in Gyeonggi Province. Authorities have yet to locate where it landed.
  • At 4:12 a second shell attack. This time dozens of 76.2 mm direct fire shells were fired into an area 700 meters inside the South Korean side of the MDL. Soldiers from the ROK Army 28thInfantry Division reported hearing the sound of shells being fired and saw smoke. There were no casualties or damage to property on the South Korean side.
  • At 5:00 p.m. the KPA sends a message through a cross-border telephone channel calling on the South Koreans to cease propaganda broadcasts into the North. The message offers an ultimatum to the South calling on the ROK to cease broadcasts within 48 hours starting at 5 p.m. on Thursday or else the North will commence a military operation.
  • At 5:04 p.m. in response to the shelling, ROK soldiers launch dozens of rounds of 155mm self-propelled Howitzer shells at a North-controlled area 500 meters north of the MDL. The North Korean Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) claimed that 36 shells were launched near KPA guard towers but that there were no injuries.
  • At 5:40 p.m. the ROK military initiates an attack readiness position and issues an evacuation order to residents living in areas of Ganghwa Island and Paju—areas south west of the shelling sites. About 220 people were also evacuated into underground shelters from areas closer to the shelling on the South Korean side. Other residents of front line villages were also evacuated as a precaution.

Yet after setting this 48-hour ultimatum for the South to stop its propaganda broadcasts, Pyongyang then reached out several times before the deadline to propose talks (Yonhap). This initiative, the first sign that it was the North that was going to back down, occurred in the wake of a statement by the South that it had no intention of stopping the broadcasts.

The forcefulness of the South Korean response appears to have come as a surprise to the North. We still do not know if the South Korean counterstrike sought to do damage and failed or was—like the North Korean shelling—largely a signal. But the counterstrike showed that the South’s effort to toughen up the deterrent in the wake of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do shellings of 2010 had some teeth. To her credit, South Korean President Park also made one crucial decision that clarified the balance of forces: she completely ignored the North Korean threats and had her government state unequivocally that the broadcasts would continue past Pyongyang’s deadline.

This in turn raises interesting questions about the advantages the North purportedly holds with its forward deployment of forces. The standard argument is that the South is deterred by the proximity of Northern artillery to Seoul, permitting Pyongyang room for mischief. The Korea Times broke the story that the North is moving 76.2-millimeter artillery into the DMZ–in obvious violation of the armistice–and perhaps moving forces just beyond the DMZ as well. But in addition to the ROK artillery counterstrike, the US and ROK airforces flew a joint show-of-force mission on Saturday with eight F-15 and F-16 fighters. Which side was really more exposed?

Any North Korean general with enough information on the sequence of events will know that the agreement was a purely face-saving one. In addition to the artillery counterstrike following the initial North Korean shelling and the highly-visible show of South Korean and American airpower, there was the quite public announcement by the ROK Minister of Defense on Monday—with the talks ongoing—that South Korea was consulting with the US over the movement of strategic assets. Kim Min-Seok—the MOD spokesman making the announcement—did not enumerate the possible hardware in question, but others were happy to oblige: B-52 and B-2 bombers and F-22 Raptor advanced stealth fighters from U.S. bases in Guam and Japan and a submarine stationed at the U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka in central Japan.

These leaks put breathy reporting of North Korean force movements in a somewhat different perspective. For example, Yonhap reported intelligence that 50 North Korean submarines—an estimated 70 percent of the fleet—were out to sea. But against the broader backdrop, this is more rightly seen as a defensive, rather than offensive, move: to avoid a Pearl Harbor if escalation were to occur.

I want to stress that however we got here, the larger strategic point is to figure out what this means for the future of diplomacy on the peninsula. And it is precisely here that the overall landscape becomes much murkier and North Korea may have, ironically, come out quite well.

Consider the North’s use of the phase “Republic of Korea” last week (Hankyoreh). Usually, the South is referred to as “south Korea,” or simply as the puppets. But this statement could also be interpreted as a pre-emptive move: to blunt the Park administration’s unification talk by reminding everyone that North Korea does, in fact, exist. In effect, “you—the ROK—stay there; we—the Kim Dynasty—will stay here.”

And beyond the resolution of the current tensions, South Korea is once again back in its perennial bind: the agreement commits North Korea to surprisingly little. The only thing in the agreement with a date-certain is to hold family reunions, an utterly costless move for the North. I strongly believe in civic engagement; let South Korean NGOs and other civil society organizations do whatever they want in the North. But the agenda of wider talks remains highly uncertain. Talks on aid and larger scale projects in the North will only make sense in the long run if the main issues are on the table, even if indirectly: nuclear weapons, the bloated North Korean military, and economic reform.

Important to watch will be what the episode reveals about the internal politics of the North. Although the regime has an array of instruments for controlling the domestic political narrative, the loudspeakers, balloons, leaflets and other Southern efforts to penetrate the regime’s information wall have clearly hit a nerve. But more interesting still is how this incident is viewed among the North Korean political and military elite. Kim Jong Un is always only a step away from an “emperor with no clothes” moment. It may be the domestic, as opposed to the international, miscalculations of this episode that prove the most significant going forward.

Which brings me to the final piece of this puzzle: how China responded. In addition to China’s typical, maddening statements about “both sides remaining calm,” Chad Carroll’s NKNews picked up a remarkable development from the Chinese blogosphere: evidence of large-scale troop movements along the Chinese-North Korean border. Although quickly shut down, according to NKNews the hardware included “PTZ-89 tank destroyers (Type 89), a PGZ-95 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (Type 95 SPAAA) and 155 mm self-propelled guns.” If China is finally getting serious about North Korea, the best possible outcome of this unfortunate series of events would be not only North-South talks—with their inherent limitations—but to actually get the multilateral Six Party Talks process going again.

This post is adapted from material published on the Witness to Transformation blog.

Stephan Haggard is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies; director, Korea-Pacific Program; and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego. He works on the political economy of developing countries, with a particular interest in Asia and the Korean peninsula. Along with Marcus Noland, he runs the Witness to Transformation blog on the Korean peninsula at

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