It certainly makes for spectacular headlines. Dynastical concerns, artillery fire, centrifuge development.

To this mass of speculation, a suggestion: while this recent action by the North Koreans is serious — as serious as it has been for a long time — it’s important to take a step back and ask what the immediate causes for this action may be.

There are many reasons why North Korea may have chosen to launch this attack, taking place during the ROK’s annual Hoguk military exercises in the Yellow Sea. Among these, just one may be internal wrangling within the North Korean military. While it is impossible to rule this out, other possibilities have very real implications for the way in which the major stakeholders — especially South Korea, the United States and China — respond to the most recent provocations.

Following the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March this year, which killed 46 South Korean military personnel, North Korea attracted international condemnation for its action. In July the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the torpedo attack, though it stopped short of directly linking North Korea to the actions. The message, however, was clear: provocative actions will win you no friends, regionally or internationally

A series of conciliatory actions, on behalf of North Korea, followed the UNSC’s condemnation. They called for a resumption of the six-party talks — a call echoed by China — and restarted family reunions, brokered by the Red Cross, between the two Koreas.

The recent provocations are yet another event in the predictably unpredictable and contradictory relationship between North and South.

Neither South Korea nor the US have been willing to re-start the six-party talks, given the current climate in North Korea. A precondition for the talks are positive steps towards disarmament by the North Koreans.

Back in Pyongyang, this seems unlikely. Amid efforts to put in place succession plans, given Kim Jong Il’s ailing health, there seems to be a shifting balance of power, in favour of the Korean Workers’ Party and away from the military. As such, discontent within the military is a possible source of these tensions, and seemingly contradictory actions.

Is this a serious step towards the complete disintegration of the already tenuous peace armistice between the two Koreas? Or is it just more of the same — posturing on behalf of North Korea, a country with few friends, few resources and dwindling options? It remains unclear.

What is clear, in the immediate future, is this has severe implications for ongoing relations between the two Koreas. A relationship that had been slowly built up over years of engagement, and that has more recently been severely tested by a conservative government in Seoul and ongoing North Korean provocations, has perhaps been now pushed to its limits.

While they are unlikely to descend into war — the ramifications of this are just too devastating for either side — coming back from here will be very difficult indeed.

Peter Fray

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