What Fueled the Latest Firefight Between North and South Korea?

Some are calling the exchange a mistake, others a sign of aggression

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Today has brought disturbing news from the always tense Korean peninsula: North Korea fired three artillery shells near the disputed Yellow Sea border on Wednesday, prompting South Korea to respond in kind and sparking a second exchange later in the day (the shots all landed in the water and don't appear to have caused any causalities). Reuters notes that South Korean military officials believe the North was conducting a training exercise off the west coast of the peninsula, and that the South may have felt the need to retaliate after not responding forcefully enough to North Korea's deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the same area in November.

This week's flare-up comes at a fragile moment, as the two Koreas--which have never officially ended the Korean War of the 1950s--aim to restart long-stalled talks with the U.S. on disarming North Korea's nuclear program and ending its economic and political isolation. As analysts parse the news, they're suggesting that today's brief altercation could represent anything from a mere mistake (with potentially serious consequences) to more deliberate aggression:

  • A Miscalculation Jack Kim at Reuters observes that "both Koreas regularly conduct exercises near their disputed maritime border, raising the risk of a miscalculation by either side which could ignite a wider war."
  • A Warning to U.S. and South Korea Baek Seung-joo, a military analyst at South Korea's state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, tells the AP that the North may be doing some saber-rattling ahead of the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises planned for next week. "North Korea routinely denounces Seoul and Washington for such drills, calling them precursors to an invasion," the AP notes. "The impoverished North faces heavy economic pressure when it is forced to mobilize its own military to counter South Korean drills."

  • An Effort to Advance Peace This may seem counterintuitive, but Kim Yong Hyun, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, lays out his reasoning for Bloomberg. "North Korea appears to be provoking the South in a calculated manner to highlight the need for a peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement after the war," he explains. "I doubt the North will go so far as to risk breaking down the dialogue."

  • Effort to Unite North Korea Baek, the South Korean analyst, also speculates that the North believes it must keep tensions with South Korea alive in order to preserve domestic unity. North Korea's Kim Jong Il "often uses surprise to keep tensions high" on the peninsula, the Los Angeles Times adds.

As if tensions weren't high enough, in the last 24 hours South Korean officials have announced an attack by North Korean hackers on a government website and South Korean news outlets have have published unconfirmed reports that the North has tasked secret agents with assassinating South Korea's defense minister.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.