Reports of an exchange of fire between two rival nations of the Korean Peninsula amid already growing tensions have signaled a potential emergence of yet another foreign policy crisis for President Joe Biden, who has vowed to stand by his allies in Asia as a larger geopolitical contest looms across the region.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff announced Sunday, early Monday local time, that its naval forces fired warning shots after a North Korean merchant vessel crossed a contested maritime boundary known as the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, called the West Sea by the Koreas, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
In North Korea, an announcement was issued shortly afterward by the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, which asserted that it was the South’s forces that violated the disputed sea boundary.
“An escort ship of the 2nd Fleet of the puppet south Korean navy invaded the Military Demarcation Line under the control of the Korean People’s Army on the sea 2.5 to 5 km in the waters 20 km northwest of Paekryong Island at around 3:50 on Monday to open ‘warning fire’ on the excuse of controlling an unidentified ship,” the statement said, according to North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Pyongyang then conducted retaliatory measures.
“The KPA General Staff ordered the coastal defence units on the western front to keep strict monitoring and counteraction readiness and made sure they took an initial countermeasure to powerfully expel the enemy warship by firing 10 shells of multiple rocket launchers toward the territorial waters, where naval enemy movement was detected, at 5:15,” the statement continued.
“The KPA opened 10 threatening and warning fires in the direction of 270 degrees of firing azimuth from the area of Ryongyon County at 5:15 on October 24,” it added.
The North Korean military then issued a rhetorical warning to coincide with the latest of a growing list of recent incidents between two neighbors still technically at war since their conflict 70 years ago, one of the first and deadliest of the Cold War still very much active on the peninsula to this day.
“The KPA General Staff once again sends a grave warning to the enemies who made even naval intrusion in the wake of such provocations as the recent artillery firing and loudspeaker broadcasting on the ground front,” the statement concluded.
The new escalation risked opening a new, dangerous chapter for the inter-Korean security climate, which has deteriorated significantly since the unraveling of a historic 2018 peace process that saw both sides come together to forge new agreements, including in the military realm. The talks, featuring various meetings between former U.S. President Donald Trump, former South Korean President Moon Jae-in and current North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, failed to produce a lasting peace deal and ultimately gave way to renewed tensions.
Biden, who inherited this troubled dynamic when taking office in early 2021, has contended with a more assertive Pyongyang, where Kim has rejected any negotiations unless steps were taken by Washington and Seoul to remove their “hostile” policies toward his nation.
Speaking to Newsweek amid the recent escalations between North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea (ROK), a White House National Security Council spokesperson said that “the United States remains focused on continuing to coordinate closely with our allies and partners to address the threats posed by the DPRK.”
“As we have repeatedly said,” the spokesperson added, “our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan is ironclad.”
The spokesperson also referenced Biden’s remarks alongside South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in May, when the U.S. leader “reaffirmed the U.S. extended deterrence commitment to both Japan and the ROK, using the full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities.”
But pressure has built on Yoon to take more decisive measures in response to increasingly active North Korean shows of force. As Kim ordered near-regular rounds of missile tests and the flight of aircraft near the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas by land, some South Korean politicians have even called for the redeployment of U.S. nuclear weapons on the peninsula some three decades after their withdrawal.
Addressing his options, Yoon has said Thursday that “there are diverse opinions across our nation and in the United States regarding extended deterrence, so I am listening to them carefully and looking carefully at various possibilities.”
U.S. and South Korean officials discussed the matter in September, their first meeting of the extended deterrence strategy and consultative group held since 2017, a year marked by an exchange of nuclear threats between Trump and Kim ahead of their detente the following year.
The National Security Council spokesperson said the meeting was held “as part of the U.S. commitment to strengthen deterrence” on the Korean Peninsula.
In addition to these measures, the spokesperson said the Biden administration was open to a diplomatic path as well, even if Pyongyang continued to refuse to engage.
“We also remain committed to diplomatic engagement with the DPRK and call on the DPRK to join us in dialogue without any preconditions,” the spokesperson said. “It is unfortunate that the DPRK has not responded to our outreach.”
Meanwhile, frictions continue to increase between the two Koreas. And despite this, the issue has been somewhat sidelined in U.S. foreign policy by the perception of a greater challenge being posed by China and Russia. Both nations were featured prominently in the new 2022 National Security Strategy released by the White House earlier this month, while North Korea received only two brief mentions in the 48-page document.
Both Beijing and Moscow have amicable ties with Pyongyang, having supported North Korea in its 1950s war with South Korea, which was backed by a U.S.-led United Nations coalition. These tied have only tightened in recent years, with China and Russia defying a longstanding consensus supporting sanctions on North Korea in response to its missile activities at the U.N. Security Council in May.
Since then, Chinese and Russian officials have refused to condemn North Korea for its launches and have echoed Kim’s concerns about recent joint exercises held by the U.S. and South Korea, as well as fellow U.S. ally Japan.
At the same time, North Korea has been outspoken in its support for China’s claims to the self-ruling island of Taiwan and has emerged as one of the few countries vocally backing Russia in its war against Ukraine, having accepted the internationally unrecognized referendum held last month to annex four contested Ukrainian regions into the Russian Federation. Washington, for its part, has increased military aid to both Taipei and Kyiv in order to counter Beijing and Moscow.