Today, South Korean marines proceeded with an artillery training exercise on Yeonpyeong Island. Instead of delivering "brutal consequences beyond imagination" if the exercise went ahead, the North Korean government instead concluded that it was "not worth reacting" to the 94-minute drill.
South Korea called the North's bluff and the North folded its hand, at least for now. The South boosted its leverage in several ways. First, it evacuated civilians on the island and in other forward locations. Second, it waited for clear weather and put F-15 fighter-bombers in the air, presumably in preparation for counter-battery strikes against North Korean artillery positions. Finally, about 20 U.S. soldiers participated in the exercise as observers, or more accurately as "trip-wires" for a U.S. retaliatory response against the North. The North's leaders likely concluded that in this case they did not possess escalation dominance. The North has exposed itself as a bluffer and will have to run much greater risks in the future to reestablish its reputation for ferocity.
This weekend's drama was a breakthrough for the South Korean government. Previous sable-rattling by the North typically resulted in multilateral negotiations, which usually concluded with some kind of payoff for the North in exchange for promises of future good behavior. The South Korean government now has an opportunity to break from that pattern.
China is another loser from this episode. It vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the North for its artillery attack last month on Yeonpyeong Island. China doubled-down on its support for the North, hoping that the South would blink and refrain from its artillery exercise. China's gambit failed. China's redoubled (and fruitless) backing for North Korea has further damaged its reputation and will likely lead to greater alarm in the region about China's judgment and intentions.
We should assume that North Korea's goal was to reconvene the six-party talks for the purpose of working out a deal that would resume outside aid to the North. South Korea, the United States, and Japan have resisted this maneuver and have now called North Korea's bluff. The North has quickly adapted by taking up a new tack; they have communicated through the visiting Bill Richardson that they are —to reopen the Yongbyon nuclear complex to IAEA inspectors. The North also seems —to discuss a sale of 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to the South, which would remove from the North this potential source of bomb-grade material.
No matter how much the North needs cash, it strains credulity to believe the North would sell off its greatest trump card, its presumed status as a nuclear weapons state. The North's interest is to get a negotiation started by whatever way it can and then bargain for a transitory deal. Its attempt at coercion failed so it is now trying a different approach but with the same ultimate goal, a resumption of aid to the North. With the North's bluff having failed, the South is under no pressure to make a response.
After the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the South Korean government took a risk when it pursued a brinkmanship strategy. That strategy has succeeded; it now has more leverage than it has had in a long time. The North's actions display internal anxiety. The South by contrast can take its time to evaluate its next moves. For the South, military preparation and strong nerves are paying off.