North Korea Launches Over 200 Rounds in Offshore Drills
North Korea conducted artillery drills offshore on January 5th, firing over 200 rounds near the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. The drills prompted South Korean officials to order the evacuation of residents on the island, located just miles from the maritime border between the rival nations.
According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), North Korea fired about 130 shells from two multiple rocket launch systems off its west coast around 12:30 p.m. local time. Nearly 100 additional shells were fired 30 minutes later from the same coastal area.
The shells landed in waters between three and nine miles northwest of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) – the de facto maritime border that Pyongyang has never recognized. No shells crossed the NLL or landed near Yeonpyeong, but the drills spurred the evacuation order as a precautionary measure.
South Korea Vows Military Response, Ramped Up Drills with US
In response to North Korea’s drills, the JCS warned that South Korea would “respond firmly” if any shells cross the NLL. South Korean forces were placed on high alert and the military staged their own artillery drills in the region soon after.
The incident also comes amid heightened tensions after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for an “exponential” increase in his country’s nuclear arsenal earlier this week. It coincides with South Korean and American troops conducting a major joint military exercise this week, just miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.
The week-long combined firing exercise involved some 140 military assets and around 1,600 troops on both sides simulating strikes on specified targets. While largely routine, the wargames take on added significance given the renewed tensions stoked by North Korea’s actions.
Island Evacuation Highlights Ongoing Threats
The artillery drills near Yeonpyeong Island are reminiscent of North Korea’s deadly artillery strike there in 2010, which killed four South Koreans. It highlights the constant danger posed by North Korean artillery within striking range of the island, home to around 1,700 civilians along with South Korean guard posts.
A South Korean Marine unit patrols Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 | Credit: Getty Images
|North Korea shells Yeonpyeong Island
|4 South Korean soldiers and 2 civilians killed
|North Korea test-fires long-range artillery
While no casualties resulted this time, the evacuation order shows South Korean officials are not taking any chances. It also demonstrates North Korea’s willingness to stoke tensions without warning through shows of military force.
Escalating a Cycle of Provocations Before Key Elections
North Korea is likely aiming to escalate tensions ahead of key elections slated to take place in South Korea and the United States this year. South Korea’s presidential election is in March, while the US will hold its presidential vote in November 2024.
North Korea has a history of staging provocations before key political events in allied democracies, hoping to insert itself into domestic political debates and influence election outcomes.
For example, ahead of South Korea’s last presidential election in 2017 North Korea test-fired missiles, staged military drills, and made threats of annihilating Seoul unless South Koreans voted out the conservative party. The progressive party ended up winning that year.
Next Moves from North Korea Difficult to Predict
Predicting North Korea’s next moves is notoriously difficult, given the opaque nature of the regime’s decision-making process and uncertainties over power struggles in Pyongyang. However, some potential next steps include:
- More short and medium-range missile tests, including launches designed to simulate nuclear strikes on South Korea
- Further expanding nuclear and missile programs, including more tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles
- Cyber warfare attacks against South Korean infrastructure
- Resuming nuclear tests for first time since 2017
- Conducting more firing drills in coastal areas near South Korea
Much depends on how South Korea, the US, and allies respond to this latest provocation. A firm but restrained approach could see North Korea pull back temporarily to avoid seriously escalating tensions early in an election year. However, substantial shows of military force like more US-South Korea joint drills could incentivize Kim Jong Un to counter with further weapons tests and bellicose threats. Careful coordination between Washington and Seoul will be required to contain tensions without needlessly inflaming the volatile situation.
The artillery drills demonstrate the razor’s edge South Korea continues to face when dealing with its nuclear-armed neighbor. While displaying resolve through military preparations and responses, avoiding unnecessary escalations will require a deft diplomatic touch in the months ahead. Miscalculation on either side could spark an unintended crisis, with civilians like those evacuated from Yeonpyeong Island most at risk if caught in any potential cross-border clashes.
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