In late 2010, North Korea engaged in an artillery bombardment of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean military personnel along with two civilians, while injuring several more. The attack carried out during a period of already heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, risked an escalation to general war.
In the aftermath of the bombardment, analysts have offered a number of theories regarding North Korea’s motives for launching the attack, with some suggesting that the attack was a clear response to South Korean military exercises held just prior to the bombardment, while others have speculated about a range of domestic factors that could have prompted North Korea to violence.
The Background and the Bombardment
Yeonpyeong Island sits just south of the contested Northern Limit Line (NLL). The NLL was established in 1953 as part of the Armistice agreement that brought the war on the Korean Peninsula to a halt, and was intended to prevent maritime clashes between South and North Korean naval forces. In 1973, North Korea began to protest the NLL, and since then DPRK and ROK armed forces have engaged in limited armed clashes near the NLL. These include clashes near the island of Yeonpyeong in 1999 and again in 2002.
Prior to the bombardment of Yeonpyeong, 2010 was a year of already heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In March of that year, a South Korean naval vessel was sunk by what was later determined to be a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. In addition, the days leading up to the attack on Yeonpyeong saw North Korea unveil a new uranium enrichment plant that experts argued demonstrated progress in the DPRK’s nuclear program that outpaced previous assessments.
The attack itself began in the afternoon of November 23, with an initial barrage of North Korean artillery firing an estimated 150 rounds over a period of roughly 12 minutes; of the rounds fired, approximately 60 struck South Korean Marine positions on the island, while the remaining 90 landed offshore. The Marine units responded with a 12-minute counterfire barrage, during which the Marines fired off 80 rounds. A second North Korean barrage followed shortly after, and in total the Korean People’s Army (KPA) fired an estimated 170 rounds. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, South Korean warplanes were scrambled with orders to engage North Korean artillery positions should they commence a third barrage.
Possible North Korean Motives
A number of suggestions have been offered regarding North Korean motives for launching the attack.
By far the most straight forward holds that the attack was a response to South Korean military exercises launched just prior to the bombardment. One week before the attack, the South Korean military announced that it would its annual “Hoguk” military exercise. On the day of the attack, North Korea reportedly informed the South Koreans that the DPRK would “not sit idly by and watch if South Korea fire[s] at North Korean waters during the military training.”
Following the commencement of the Hoguk exercise, South Korean Marines on Yeonpyeong engaged in a live-fire artillery exercise that, according to the South Korean military, was not connected with the larger exercise but was instead a routine monthly training exercise; the rounds fired by the Marines landed in contested waters near the NLL. It is not clear whether it was the location of the artillery exercise, its occurrence alongside the larger Hoguk exercise, or some combination of the two, that so provoked the DPRK, but the exercises have been pointed to as a likely trigger. Indeed, Pyongyang justified the attack along these lines, with a KPA statement released following the attack declaring that the exercises represented a “sinister attempt to defend the brigandish ‘northern limit line’”, and that the artillery attack was a defensive measure undertaken in response to provocative South Korean actions.
Others have suggested that the attack was motivated by separate, domestic considerations. Analysts speculated that the attack might have been part of the Kim regime’s ongoing efforts to use military crises as justification for continued dominance of domestic politics and the economy, that the attack was an attempt to knock South Korea down a peg following its hosting of and assumption of a leadership role at a recent G-20 summit, or that the attack, in connection with the earlier reveal of its new uranium enrichment facility, was an attempt to compel the United States to return to the negotiating table in a situation favorable to the DPRK. For others, the attack reflected internal leadership dynamics centered around the grooming of the then heir apparent Kim Jong Un; Adiran Buzo, in his book Politics and Leadership in North Korea, describes the event as a literal “live-fire” exercise designed to provide the future leader with experience in crisis management and escalation – an important lesson delivered by a father with considerable experience in such situations to a son devoid of such experience. In a similar vein, others posited that the experience was meant to demonstrate the future leader’s commitment to North Korea’s enduring “military first” policy to a military whose influence was growing and whose support was paramount to creating and maintaining domestic legitimacy.
On the Precipice of War?
Tensions on the peninsula continued to intensify and threaten to spill over into war in the weeks following the attack as the South Korean military engaged in retaliatory drills and exercises, including an artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island on December 20, to which North Korea promised to retaliate. The South would hold additional major air and land drills less than 20 miles from the border. Despite concerns that the drills would spark further clashes that could ultimately lead to war – particularly given Pyongyang’s threats of retaliation – violence was averted after the North declared that it was “not worth reacting” to the drills. Competing explanations for North Korea’s decision to back down have been offered, with some suggesting that South Korea’s performance during the crisis represents a highly successful exercise in deterrence; South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, safe in the knowledge that North Korea would likely not seek out a war that would surely draw in the United States, was able to call North Korea’s bluff and hold the military exercises in December. Others have argued that North Korea’s brinkmanship strategy had already demonstrated its willingness to stand up for its interests, and that North Korea had likely already accomplished its objectives without feeling the need to resort to full-scale war.
Regardless, the fact that war in the end was avoided should not distract from the fact that war on the peninsula did very nearly break out. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who traveled to North Korea during the crisis in an attempt to defuse the situation, later described the heightened tensions and the “bunker mentality” that were prevalent in the DPRK. Robert Gates, at the time still serving as Secretary of Defense, described the saga as a “very dangerous crisis”, and would later reveal the aggressive diplomatic push that he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Barack Obama undertook in order to dissuade the South Koreans from launching a much more escalatory response in the form of air and artillery attacks that could easily have led to the outbreak of war. At least one former intelligence official has argued that the situation in 2010 was much more likely to result in war than was the showdown between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017. Indeed, given the already increased tensions at the time of the attack, it is quite fortunate that cooler heads prevailed in what could have been the spark that reignited open hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.
Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.