Having just been on holiday with two very strong-willed little boys aged eight and nine, I feel particularly well qualified to explain why the two Koreas went to the brink of war over some loudspeakers, but didn’t go over the edge. George and James could explain the process even better themselves, but child labour laws prevent them from writing for newspapers, so I will do it for them.
It began with a landmine explosion in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two countries that severely wounded two South Korean army sergeants. The mine was of an old Soviet design, so Seoul said it must have been put there by North Korea and demanded an apology from Pyongyang.
The North Korean denied it, of course, but Pyongyang gets very upset every year around this time, when South Korea and the United States hold their annual joint military exercises.
So to punish North Korea, South Korea re-activated the loudspeakers that used to broadcast anti-North Korean propaganda across the DMZ until they were turned off 11 years ago. Nobody could hear the propaganda except North Korean soldiers on the other side of the DMZ, so it’s hard to see what actual harm it was doing, but North Korea rose to the bait with alacrity.
On August 17 afternoon, North Korean troops fired a rocket and several artillery shells at the loudspeakers, though none seem to have hit them. South Korea responded with a barrage of dozens of 155mm artillery rounds, which led North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (the pudgy one with the very bad haircut) to declare a “semi-state of war” and set a 48-hour deadline for the loudspeakers to be turned off.
Otherwise, Kim said, his troops would carry out “indiscriminate strikes” against the South. This would have been a grave threat if he actually meant it, since most of Seoul, a city of 25 million people, is within artillery range of the DMZ, but the August 19 deadline passed without further shooting.
Instead, urgent talks began on August 19 in the “truce” village of Panmunjom, in the middle of the DMZ, between Hwang Pyong-so, the political director of the North Korean armed forces, and Kim Kwan-jin, national security adviser to the South Korean president.
The talks lasted more than three days, with the South Korean loudspeakers still blaring out and North Korean artillery, landing craft and submarines moving towards the frontiers.
“If nothing is agreed, we have to continue the broadcasting,” said the South Korean representative at the talks. “We are tired of speaking the language of escalation.”
That last sentence didn’t even make sense. Were Kim Kwan-jin and his North Korean counterpart really flirting with the idea of a war that would certainly kill hundreds of thousands of people, and might even turn nuclear, over some loudspeakers? Maybe, but there was a distinct lack of panic in other capitals, and in the end they made a deal.
That brings us back to the two litle boys. Siblings who are close in age, even if they are friends, are also rivals, and they generally squabble a lot. They often get locked into quarrels over matters of little or no importance and seem unable to walk away from them. What keeps these struggles from ending in real violence, and usually restores order in the end, is adult intervention. Even if they resent it, the kids also secretly welcome it, because it frees them from the trap of their own emotions.
The adults, in this case, are the great-power allies of the two Koreas: China for the North, and the United States for the South. It’s not that Americans and Chinese are really more grown-up than Koreans, but being farther away, they could see how petty the confrontation really is, and they had no intention of being dragged into a war over it.
So in the end, North Korea expressed “regret” about the landmine, and South Korea turned off the loudspeakers, and everybody lived grumpily ever after. Or something like that.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.