The Journal of Asian Studies

Research Article

Korea on the Brink: Reading the Yŏnp'yŏng Shelling and its Aftermath

Nan Kim

By late December 2010, the truculence of brinkmanship between the two Koreas made it easy to forget that more auspicious signs of compromise had come as recently as this past autumn. The resumption of reunions among separated Korean families in late October and early November appeared to signal a modest improvement in inter-Korean cooperation, raising hopes that a program of cross-border family meetings would not only continue, but also expand. Yet, those hopes were dashed only weeks later when a military crisis escalated off the west coast of the Korean peninsula. On November 23 in a contested maritime zone, a South Korean military exercise was challenged by a North Korean artillery unit, which escalated the confrontation by shelling a South Korean island—killing four South Koreans including two civilians. In the artillery exchange that followed between the two sides, five North Korean soldiers were killed. The stark contrast between the pathos of the tearful family reunions and the panic and anger following the shelling of Yŏnp'yŏng Island, illustrated how quickly the inter-Korean situation had deteriorated. During the same month when South Korea hosted world leaders at the G-20 summit in Seoul to discuss the state of the global economy and the risks of a brewing “currency war,” the family reunions and deadly artillery attack served as sobering reminders that the Korean War, never formally ended, still continues.

(Online publication June 24 2011)

Nan Kim (ynkp@uwm.edu) is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

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