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On Escalation in Korea

Author: Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action
January 13, 2011
38 North


Despite intermittent crises and many deadly clashes, nearly six decades have passed since the armistice agreement “ending” the Korean War was signed without there being a serious resumption of military hostilities. Though the armed standoff in Korea is hardly a desirable state of affairs, this record can be taken as a reassuring sign of its underlying stability. But how sanguine should we be that the current crisis will recede in much the same way that earlier ones have and that the deterrent relationship will hold? In fact, recent events raise some troubling questions about the volatility of the situation in Korea today.

First, the November 23, 2010 shelling of Yeongpyeong Island by North Korean artillery clearly caught many experts by surprise. North-South relations had been thawing after a summer of heightened tensions following the sinking of the ROK naval ship Cheonan in March. Even the revelation of new nuclear enrichment facilities immediately prior to the attack had seemed to accomplish its putative goal of convincing the outside world that North Korea could not be left to stew in its own juices and that engagement was now imperative. So why would North Korea set back its coercive diplomatic campaign  by launching yet another deadly provocation that antagonized everyone—including its principal patron China—just when the wind was clearly beginning to blow in its favor? Did North Korea fail to see this or did it miscalculate the impact of its actions? Did other factors, notably the succession process underway in Pyongyang, affect the calculus or tip the scales in some decisive way?

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