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North Korea's bizarre "quasi war" with South Korea, explained

Kim Jong Un with soldiers.
Kim Jong Un with soldiers.
(KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

The current situation in North Korea sounds pretty scary. Following cross-border fighting on Thursday that the New York Times describes as "the first serious armed clash between the countries" since 2010, North Korea has put its troops on high alert, declaring "a quasi-state of war" (which essentially means putting its military at a high state of readiness) with South Korea.

This is certainly troubling. But it also might mean less than you think: The North has plenty of incentives to ramp up the prospect of conflict with the South but stop far short of actual open war.

The sequence of events here is a little confusing, but critical to understanding what's happening. Here's a brief timeline to help you orient yourself:

  • August 4: Two South Korean soldiers are wounded by a land mine explosion in the demilitarized zone. Per the New York Times, the South accused the North of planting the mines, but the North denies it.
  • August 10: South Korea begins playing propaganda through loudspeakers in the demilitarized zone separating the countries as punishment for the land mine incident. This used to be something the Koreas did regularly, but the two sides agreed to stop in 2004.
  • August 16: The US and South Korea begin annual joint military exercises.
  • August 20: North Korea fires two rounds of munitions, including rockets and, allegedly, mortars, into the South's territory near the border. The South responds with artillery fire. No casualties are reported. North Korea issues an ultimatum, demanding the South turn off the loudspeakers by 5 pm Saturday local time or face more military consequences.
  • August 21: North Korean loudspeaker vans announce that the country is in a state of "quasi-war" and announces approval of a "final attack plan" on the South, though it bizarrely denies firing on South Korea on Thursday. South Korea's military goes on high alert; the nation's president, Park Geun-hye, orders the military to respond to any Northern provocations.

When you've got the sequence of events straight, the military escalation makes more sense. The loudspeakers are a deliberate attempt to reduce the morale of the North's border troops, or maybe even get them to defect. And US military exercises regularly inflame the North.

When political tensions are high, as they are now, the North regularly does provocative things — like firing rockets across the border. It's difficult to know for sure why the country does this, given how little information we have about the way North Korea's leadership thinks. But one plausible explanation is that they're trying to maintain deterrence: Essentially, if it looks like the North will respond violently to even minor incidents, then the South will avoid military action that could seriously threaten North Korean interests.

"One (and certainly not the only) possibility is that North Korean leaders understand that periodic violent acts against the alliance serve to reinforce the credibility of North Korea's conventional deterrent by demonstrating a political willingness to risk war," Michael McDevitt, a senior fellow at CNA Strategic Studies, explained in a 2011 paper.

The North's rationale could also be political. North Korean ideology positions itself as resistance to South Korean and American aggression. Launching military responses, even limited ones, to Southern propaganda and US military exercises helps the North show its citizens that it's following through on its professed ideals.

If either theory is right, then the kind of border exchange of fire we're seeing right now isn't likely to escalate to a major war. Indeed, the history of these spats bears that out: In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, and fired on a South Korean island, killing four people. Those are both much more serious incidents than what we've seen so far, and yet they didn't escalate to major wars.

That's not to say things couldn't get worse. But in evaluating the risk that today's conflict might escalate into something more serious, it's critically important to understand the context: Brinksmanship and periodic exchanges of fire are part and parcel of the North-South relationship. While that's certainly dangerous, both sides understand that a war isn't in their interests. Periodic cross-border tensions are, to a certain extent, part of the game.