Annual joint military exercises between the American and South Korean (Republic of Korea, or ROK) armed forces began yesterday, the 19th of August, in an atmosphere of surprising calm on the Korean peninsula. These war games have often seen strident criticism from the ROK’s secretive neighbour North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) in the past. Particularly given the drastic escalation of tensions that occurred earlier this year, the relative inexperience of the DPRK’s new leader Kim Jong-Un, and the unpredictable nature of the DPRK itself, the exercises had been seen as a potential flashpoint. While some North Korean rhetoric condemning the exercises has emerged in the past hour, it is noticeably milder than usual and seemingly indicates the DPRK’s current preference for a resumption of diplomatic talks.
The exercises, named Ulchi Freedom Guardian, involve 30’000 American and 50’000 South Korean troops. These computer simulated war games will continue until the 30th of August, according to the ROK’s defence ministry and the US military command in Seoul. These annual exercises are of a primarily defensive nature according to Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for ROK defence ministry “Ulchi Freedom Guardian…is a joint exercise by South Korea and the United States to prepare for possible provocation from North Korea. The Korean peninsula is under constant threat from the North and the joint exercise is indispensable to maintaining stability” while ROK president Park Guen-hye cited the drills as vital for South Korea’s “readiness posture”.
In previous years, North Korea has acted extremely aggressively to these exercises, denouncing them in media statements and suggesting they are preparation for an invasion. During the extreme escalation of tensions on the peninsula in spring, Pyongyang threatened retaliation with nuclear weapons if US-South Korean war games went ahead. In the build-up to these well publicised exercises however, the atmosphere remained calm. This morning, the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea belatedly released a statement via state media condemning the drills as a “provocation” and threated South Korea with unspecified consequences.
However, this rhetoric is extremely mild by North Korean standards, particularly in light of Pyongyang’s behaviour earlier this year. During that period, in response to increased UN sanctions in light of its nuclear weapons program, the DPRK severed communication links with the south, made almost daily threats of nuclear annihilation, and moved military hardware such as missiles towards the coastal regions, placing nations throughout East Asia on alert.
Since then however, tensions have begun to calm, with the resumption of talks between the two Koreas beginning. The countries are working towards reopening the joint Kaesong industrial park, which has North Korean workers and South Korean managers. The park is seen as an important barometer of relations between the countries, and was closed earlier this year. A possible re-opening would be a notable conciliatory gesture from the North, though one not without self-interest, as the park provides a much needed source of hard currency for the impoverished DPRK. Pyongyang also agreed on Sunday to talks about reuniting families separated by the end of the Korean War in 1953, another measure that was seen as a key inter-Korea cooperation project. Lastly, the DPRK is also angling for a resumption of South Korean tourist tours of Diamond Mountain, suspended since the shooting of a South Korean woman by a North Korean soldier in 2008 and also a much needed source of foreign currency for the DPRK.
As such, it currently appears that the North has chosen to take a calm approach to the current exercises in order to facilitate much needed diplomatic gains. This is a common practice in DPRK foreign policy – a rapid escalation of tensions featuring apocalyptic threats is followed by equally sudden de-escalation, with the promise of talks on diplomatic issues used as leverage to extract developmental aid and other concessions. The DPRK’s mild behaviour and current easing of tensions is likely a manifestation of this trend.
A Chinese fishing vessel, the Liaoning Generic Fishing No. 25000, seized by the North Korean navy in the Yellow Sea earlier this month, safely docked in its home port of Dalian on the evening of Saturday, June 1st. While there have been reports that no ransom was paid in this instance, the incident demonstrates significant potential risks for shipping operating near the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) disputed maritime borders.
The craft and its 16 crew were seized at gunpoint on the 5th of May and taken to be held in North Korea. The ship’s owner, Yu Xuejin, was not aboard and reports that he was informed of the incident on May 10th, when unidentified North Koreans contacted him demanding 600’000 Yuan (£64’000) for the safe return of his vessel. Both Yu and official Chinese sources insist the craft was in Chinese waters, though the ransom demand claimed the vessel was captured because it had strayed in North Korean waters. Yu was ordered to pay the money to a company in Dandong, a Chinese city on the border between the PRC and DPRK with a large population of ethnic Koreans, many of whom retain contact with relatives in the secretive North Korean state.
Instead of paying, Yu contacted the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and publicised his case on China’s micro blogging services, leading to marked public outrage within the PRC. The MFA made representations to the North Korean authorities and successfully secured the release of the vessel and crew on the 21st of May. Yao Guozhi, the captain, claims the crew was kept in poor condition with very little food, though they were able to continue with fishing operations for a time after their release.
While China and North Korean are officially allies, the relationship has become increasingly strained since the end of the Cold War. Beijing finds itself frequently at odds with Pyongyang, and there is significant public demand within China for a firmer diplomatic stance regarding its unpredictable neighbour.
In fact, this incident is only the most recent of numerous acts of piracy in the sea between China and the Korean peninsula. In May last year, 3 Chinese fishing vessels and their 29 crew were taken in similar circumstances in the Yellow Sea, with a ransom of 1.2 million Yuan (£130’000) demanded. In this instance, the captives were reportedly starved and severely beaten while in North Korean custody. Commenting on the most recent incident, a Liaoning Maritime and Fisheries official observed:
“Whatever you call North Korea – rogue state or whatever – these kind of cases just keep on happening. We had such cases last year and the year before. There’s very little we can do to prevent them”
Exact figures for the number of incidents remain unknown – in the past, many Chinese would pay the ransoms, which were at the time very small. This helped ensure incidents were kept out of the public eye. Demands for increased payment in recent cases perhaps indicate the North Koreans responsible have found the piracy profitable and may be escalating their activities as a result.
However, it is extremely unlikely last month’s seizure of the Chinese vessel represents official North Korean policy. North Korea cannot claim to have an entirely coherent state or military, and government entities including the armed forces became weak and disorganised when a disastrous famine killed an estimated 5 – 10% of the population in the mid-1990s.
As a result of the famine, a huge black market formed which is now the most significant economic force within the DPRK. While the current situation is nowhere near as extreme as in the 1990s, the state bureaucracy often fails to supply basic necessities. With the North Korean won essentially worthless access to foreign hard cash for use on the black market is crucial for even the most basic standards of living – cross-border criminality such as smuggling has proliferated dramatically as a result.
Piracy in the Yellow Sea is very likely another symptom of this trend. North Korean armed forces personnel are extremely poorly paid and often malnourished, and many become involved in criminal activity to supplement their meagre earnings. As such the most likely culprits in last month’s incidents, and identified as such by the Chinese victims, are North Korean naval forces acting opportunistically.
While broader state involvement is doubtful, some level of co-operation with local officials is likely, though the exact identity of the Koreans involved remains unknown. Additionally, reporting from similar incidents in the past has suggested the possible involvement of Chinese-Koreans, perhaps indicating a connection with ethnic Korean organised criminality based in the aforementioned border city of Dandong.
North Korea does not recognise the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime boundary with South Korea, and has operated beyond it in the past, while its maritime borders with China remain extremely fluid. Disputed territorial claims in the area and lack of strong authority in the DPRK have created a cat and mouse game of border incursions between vessels of both Koreas and Chinese ships. Chinese pirates also operate in the Yellow Sea, and killed a North Korean soldier in 2009. North Korea has a history of capturing South Korean ships, and reportedly continues to hold a total of 427 South Korean sailors and fishermen captive, though this activity has lessened dramatically since a peak in the 1970s.
The North Korean navy is poorly equipped, and for the most part limited to operations in or just beyond it’s territorial waters – the major shipping lanes in the Bohai Strait and similar likely remain outside the reach of most DPRK vessels. Nevertheless, any ships in the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay should be aware of the contentious environment and the potential for DPRK naval forces to engage in opportunistic acts of piracy.
While the political situation on the Korean peninsula has recently begun to calm down again, escalation is almost certain to reoccur in the future. In case of dramatically increased tensions, DPRK violations of South Korean or Chinese waters would be expected, with the North Koreans unlikely to respect the status of any neutral shipping in the area.