My initial thoughts on the provocation that occurred today in Korea. I do not have anything more than the initial reports to base this on but it is my initial assessment.
Who Won the August 20th north-South Provocation Exchange?
On the afternoon of August 20th the north Korean People’s Army (nKPA) apparently fired an artillery round into South Korea ostensibly to respond to the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) decision to initiate psychological operations broadcast along the Demilitarized Zone. Although some viewed this as a weak response to the north’s next most recent provocation of emplacing a box mine on the southern side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that injured two ROK Army soldiers. The purpose of that provocation might have been to protest the current ongoing ROK/US Combined Forces Command (ROK/US CFC) annual readiness exercise Ulchi Focus Guardian.
In response to the nKPA artillery fire, reports indicate the ROK Army immediately and decisively responded at the time and place of provocation with counter fire directed against the nKPA firing units just as the new ROK/US Combined Counter-provocation Plan calls for.
Some have speculated that the north could achieve a “victory” with this artillery exchange if the ROK/US CFC cancels or suspends the current exercise. I think the exact opposite is going to happen and the “victor” from a psychological, political, and military perspective with the ROK military, the ROK government and the ROK/US alliance.
First we should consider the ROK response to the mine provocation. Some accuse the ROK of only taking half measures and that a psychological operations only response is weak and inconsequential. This is wrong. The Kim Family Regime fears outside information more than an artillery attack. A psychological operations response is a significant threat to the regime. While people may discount loudspeaker broadcasts the regime will rightly assume that the ROK is going to intensify other PSYOP efforts to include supporting defector efforts to get information in the north. Information is more dangerous to the regime than a kinetic military response. This is why the north responded with threats and then with action.
Will the August 20th provocation cause the cancellation of Ulchi Focus Guardian? If that was the north’s intent then it will fail miserably. It would be prudent for any commander to suspend the current exercise because no one can predict how far up the escalation ladder this incident could go. The alliance must remain vigilant and ready for the north Korean response and conducting a training exercise in the face of increased tensions and open hostilities (if a single artillery exchange could be considered as such). However, what the north has done in this case is provide an even “better” training scenario for the alliance and because the ROK and US headquarters are deployed to their operational headquarters and the ROK/US CFC chain of command is in effect for the exercises and the ROK and US forces have gone on higher alert the north’s provocation is actually having the opposite effect. This also provides more opportunity for alliance PSYOP and information operations planners to develop themes and message to undercut the legitimacy of the Kim Family regime, which again is the biggest threat to it.
ROK and US forces now have the opportunity to review the current actions to confirm the counter-provocation plan. It provides the intelligence community with a focus on observing for the next north Korea action that is better “training” than can be done on any computer scenario.
Furthermore, the ROK response should generate increased confidence among the Korean people because President Park issued decisive orders for counter-provocation and the ROK Army executed them as intended. Most importantly people should understand that the ROK responded decisively and appropriately to two provocations with the first psychological operations response counter-intuitively being the stronger one because it threatens the regime more than artillery fire.
The north ‘s actions continue to paint the DPRK as a pariah state which will further cause its international isolation (as if it could be any more isolated). Its actions will also likely increase the rising anti-north and pro-unification sentiment among the Korean people in the South as well.
The only objective the north can really achieve with this is that with the alliance demonstrating the will and capability to respond to provocations and the continued activation and manning of all the alliance operational headquarters and the raised alert status of alliance combat forces the north can continue its rhetoric that the alliance poses a threat to the regime and it can use this to demand further sacrifices of the Korean people living in the north to support its military. Since that was going to happen anyway with the exercise there is no real benefit to the north.
Although it is the (correct) intent of the alliance to deter provocations and attack by the north, the response by the ROK Army to the mine and artillery provocations as well as the continued operations of the ROK/US CFC headquarters from their operational locations shows that the north has miscalculated and not been able to achieve its objectives on August 20th.