North-South Korea Clash Risk Rising

BMI sees rising risks of a new provocation by North Korea against the South over the coming weeks, for three key reasons. Firstly, Pyongyang is incensed by moves by the UN to tighten sanctions against itself for its nuclear test on February 12, 2013. Secondly, the North appears to want to test the resolve of South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, who took office on February 25. Thirdly, the North wants to make a show of strength as the South conducts joint military exercises with the US.

If North Korea does carry out a provocation, the South will certainly be tempted to respond. President Park’s defence minister-nominee, Kim Byung-kwan, stated on March 7 that Seoul would sternly punish the North by employing all means available, including psychological warfare. Another Southern general, Kim Yong-hyun, also warned that it would retaliate against the North’s ‘command’, which is believed to refer to its corp commanders.

After the North’s provocations in 2010, which resulted in the deaths of 50 South Koreans, the South took no military action – for fear of triggering a wider conflagration. This may have sent the message to Pyongyang that Seoul does not have the resolve for a fight. Now that the South has given a strong warning, it may have to follow up on its rhetoric in the face of a Northern provocation. There is thus the risk that a Northern provocation against the South will lead to retaliation, resulting in a skirmish that costs dozens of lives.

In the event of a clash that risks escalation, we would expect the US and China to exert tremendous pressure on all parties to prevent matters from spiralling into a bigger conflict. A fuller version of this article is available to subscribers at Business Monitor Online.