North Korea continues to increase the level of its provocations, and this winter's training cycle has seen renewed intensity

North Korea continues to increase the level of its provocations, and this winter's training cycle has seen renewed intensity (Picture via Euronews)

The sinking of the Republic of Korea’s Pohang-class Corvette, Cheonan, on March 26, 2010, and the shelling of the South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island on November 23, 2010 have had a profound impact on South Korean peoples’ views of their North Korean brethren.

President Lee Myung-bak’s policies towards North Korea have effectively reversed the “Sunshine policy” of his predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, but prior to the two events, there had remained a significant section of the South Korean population believing in good will approaches toward North Korea. Even after the Cheonan sinking, some among South Koreans shifted the blame to President Myung-bak, blaming his unpopular party for hiding information and potentially fabricating the North Korean link to spur an uptick in public opinion.

The Yeonpyeong shelling silenced many of these disbelievers, mobilizing the majority of the population to accept North Korea as a valid modern threat, and the South Korean tolerance level for North Korean provocation has become extremely low in the years since 2010.

Meanwhile, in North Korea, Kim Jong-il is dead and his son, Kim Jong-un is in the process of proving his legitimacy as the new heir and ruler of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). As the 100th birthday of his grandfather, North Korea hero and demi-god, Kim Il-Sung approaches, Jong-un has busied himself by continually demonstrating military prowess (and thus, his strength) to his people. Not a day passes with propaganda emerging from the DPRK, showing Jong-un’s review of military installations or his ‘conducting’ of military drills. The DPRK’s plan to launch a space satellite, despite international criticism, is the icing on the cake of Jong Un’s internal power play.

The North Korean powers-that-be couldn’t be trying harder to grow an instant aura of dominance for their new leader.

As Japan, South Korea, the United States (and Taiwan, who shall remain in parenthesis b/c we must always pretend that no one is allowed to interact with them) all prepare to confront North Korea’s satellite launch with their missile defense systems, the potential for flare-ups have increased exponentially, though all sides involved in this space satellite debacle appear keen on maintaining the status quo. Even a Japanese/South Korean interception of the North Korea rocket would likely leave two happy sides, a North Korea with new ammunition to fuel the Jong-un vs. World personality cult, and a happy United States, massaging relationships with regional allies, while testing their missile systems (and freaking out China).

Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un’s military machinations have trickled down to many levels of the North Korean military, increasing potential provocations on all fronts. These fronts are less anticipated, and while less “major,” all contain the potential for conflict. As North Korea plays more and more games to demonstrate their military prowess, they’re doing it at a time when South Korea has one of the shortest fuses for such shenanigans that it’s had in decades. This, coupled with a point where the DPRK may be pressed by internal political situations to demonstrate the bite behind their bark, leads to a dire overall outlook for the peninsula.

North Korea is currently flying 650 Air Force sorties per day, a change from the 300-400 normally seen during the winter training months (North Korea’s standard military training period), and a far cry from the yearly average of 100 sorties per day. South Korean pilots have been forced to scramble their fighters more often, discouraging DPRK fighters from encroaching on zones near South Korean airspace (Sidenote: “even on weekends” is the best thing I’ve ever read in an article. I hope to god that South Korea is ready to fight on weekends).

In addition, South Korea is still at a loss to locate three (“or four,” yet another classic quote that makes me fear South Korean military acumen) North Korean SANG’O-class infiltration submarines. While again, this is the time of year when the North Korean military conducts training exercises, KGS Nightwatch indicates that a major missed indicator in the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010 was the departure of North Korean submarines from port prior to the sinking.

Kim Jong-un is fueling his military on many levels, hoping to prove his legitimacy in the eyes of his people, to throw a bone to a military whose support he desperately needs, and to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s birth (which in turn, helps his legitimacy). North Korea is pressing their luck on multiple fronts, increasing provocations in hopes of solidifying their people’s loyalty against a percieved bevvy of external threats. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when South Korea’s tolerance for such acts has fallen precipitously after two previous provocations turned deadly.

The US/ROK/Japan ‘alliance’ has found renewed strength in forging bonds together in the shadow of North Korea’s rocket launch, but this author warns that it’s often the little things that touch off a conflict. While the allies appear well-prepared for the DPRK’s launch, he hopes that this Pacific alliance is prepared for other provocations that may test South Korea’s short threshold to the very limit.

…and for an alliance that’s huge on baseball, this author warns that North Korea already has two strikes.

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Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 88 post(s) on New Pacific Institute