North Korea's recent attack on Yeonpeyong Island was a war crime

Recently, this subject came up tangentially in a now-locked GD thread, but didn’t have a chance to be properly addressed. I also posted this in a pit thread, but due to the nature of the thread it wasn’t ever debated.
I’d like to keep this tightly confined to its scope and without undue rancor, so if anybody feels the need to debate related issues other than whether or not the rocket attack was a war crime regardless of its ‘provocation’, to respond harshly or to allege less-than-honest conduct, I would ask that they please use the Pit thread that we have open for that purpose.

I may, possibly, have made errors in fact or logic on this subject, but I haven’t caught any. I also know that CEP is not quite as simple as I’ve presented it, and there is a lot of imprecision and many unaddressed variables in discussing the statistical trajectory of the roughly 200 rockets that were fired. Please, if you can, fact-check this and chew on the logic and see if it does or does not stand to reason that North Korea’s attack on Yeonpeyong Island was a war crime.

[li]The evidence points to North Korea using a six truck BM-21 MRL battery to attack Yeonpyeong Island[/li][li]Roughly 1/6 of the rockets fired scored direct hits and/or glancing hits on homes sufficient to destroy them, and virtually every building on the island suffered some form of damage.[/li][li] The BM-21 has a very large CEP and is totally unsuited for attacking point-targets.[/li][li]In point of fact, “the system cannot be used in situations that call for pinpoint precision, unless one is ready to cover the surroundings of the target with fire.”[/li][li]While I have been unable to find the specific CEP for the BM-21, an upgraded rocket that is slated to replace the BM-21 and has increased accuracy has a 1-2% CEP. As such, I will be using 2% as the CEP for the BM-21, with the caveat that it is most likely an underestimation. [/li][li]Yeonpyeong Island is roughly 15 km from the North Korean launch site which rained roughly 200 missiles down on the island. (tagged at location #4 in the first link) [/li][li]2% of 15km is 300 meters. The CEP represents the radius of a circle in which 50% of the artillery will land. Yeonpyeong Island is roughly 5 square kilometers in area (link #6). The area of the circle formed by the CEP (again, likely underestimated as per link 5) is about 3 square kilometers, or over half of the area of the Island. Roughly 50% of the approximately 200 BM-21 rockets that NK launched would have landed within that circle, with the other 50% landing outside of it. [/li][li]This means that, in pragmatic terms, it was functionally impossible for North Korea to target anything in specific on the Island or discriminate civilian from military targets. [/li][li]Likewise, from the fact that roughly 200 rockets were fired and roughly 200 rockets impacted the island (see link 1), we know that the center of the circle was somewhere close to the center of the island, as opposed to being centered on South Korea’s military location, or else a significant number of the roughly 200 rockets NK launched would have fallen into the ocean instead of on the land. [/li][li]South Korea has had the Rome Statute in effect since 2003. South Korea’s territory is where the attack occurred. Under Article 12, paragraph 2, subsection A of the Rome Statute, the ICC has jurisdiction to prosecute those responsible for actions in violation of the RS that are directed against the State on the territory of which the conduct in question occurred, even if the violating nation is not a signatory [/li][li]Under the RS, war crimes include but are not limited to:[/li]- Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated;
-Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives;
[li] I would also argue that by launching weapons that were indiscriminate and whose area of effect included virtually the entire population of the island, NK also run afoul of:[/li]-Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities;
-Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives;

As such: North Korea’s recent attack on South Korea was an indiscriminate attack on civilians and a war crime.

I have not heard the defense offered by North Korea. I am still waiting.
We call civilian deaths, collateral damage. Perhaps in North Korea calls it that, we will accept it.

No. The laws of war make it clear that there is a degree of collateral damage that is acceptable in relation to the concrete military advantage to be gained.
The whole point here is that this was an indiscriminate attack on civilians and even if we assume for the sake of the argument that the ‘provocation’ was valid, then it was still an indiscriminate attack on civilians in order to remove a military threat to empty, open ocean.

Please address the facts and/or logic that I have put forward, and not whether or not America does bad things.

Ok, say it is…so? How does this change anything?

So you’re saying it’s practically impossible to be militarily aggressive and not commit a war crime unless you do it in the middle of a desert, the high seas, or generally in the middle of nowhere? I like it.

Sitnam: That’s not within the scope of my OP. I am only interested in the accuracy or lack thereof of my charge that NK’s attack was a war crime.

A “what to do about NK” thread is quite another thing entirely and not a discussion I’d like to vet bogged down in here please.

Marshmallow: I have said nothing of he sort and collateral damage is clearly authorized in proportion to the concrete military advantage it would bring. If you would like to debate the laws of war in general, please start a new thread. Thank you.

I’m unsure if it’s a war crime. Yes, technically, a state of war has existed, but the common use of war crime involves an actual hot war. It’s probably prosecutable as a war crime, though.
But by the common meaning, I’d call it more of state-sponsored terrorism.

I don’t believe that a war crime has to take place within an ongoing war or a low intensity compost before it goes hot, or even be responded to militarily. If tomorrow France decides to nuke London, it’d be a war crime even if the UK immediately surrendered. As for state sponsored terrorism, I’d wager that applies to NK’s actions as well.

That’s a good question, then. Is it?

I agree with the consensus, ware crime and terrorism. Further based on the brutalities inflicted on helpless North Koreans I submit a charge of Crimes Against Humanity applies.

This is what I get for posting from an iPod. Obviously, that was supposed to be low intensity combat.

Which, as to whether or not it’s state sponsored terrorism? I’d agree that it is, but I’m not sure that there’s any legal force behind that determination other than listing them on something like the US list of state sponsors of terrorism or what have you.

I don’t see it applying under the Rome Statute. Can you clarify how it fits in with your interpretation?

the relevant text specifically:

What happens to the North Korean who mentions Democracy might be nice, or takes up a religion?

How about intentionally starving their population? In the other thread there were cites the North Korean government intentionally starved it’s prisoners to death, and used starvation as a subjugation tool. Further when it couldn’t or wouldn’t provide food it outlawed starving people from getting their own food, or they’d be thrown in jail to further starve. I could go on.

As you may have guessed from the last couple threads, I’m not a fan of the DPRK, but I don’t see that you have adequately justified your position here.

Your end assertions don’t work: given that the DPRK lacked the capability with the artillery they had on hand to just hit the military target, Point 12 is completely unproveable. In fact, there’s evidence against it, namely that there was a military base in the line of fire. That clearly constitutes a valid military target. Yes, I see your point about the 200 rounds mostly falling on the island —but we don’t know how exact the actual North Korean soldiers’ knowledge of their target was (the centre of the island is also its most prominent point, by the look of things). More importantly, the civilian town appears to be on the coast, too —if they were targeting the town, they would have had a lot of splashes, too!

The bigger point, of course, is proportionality. You have not shown how many civilians were on the island relative to military emplacements. For that matter, to make an argument about proportionality, we would need to discuss how damaging the South Korean forces could be to the North Koreans in an armed conflict (seeing as they’re right off the coast, “very” would be a reasonable response). I don’t have that information either —it’s not my job to provide it —but I can’t imagine that you would end up with an action that was clearly over the line in regard to proportionality.

Of course, since treaties are binding, there may have been a crime in the breaking of the armistice over a purely symbolic (and not really aggressive) act from the South Koreans, but that’s a different matter altogether.

ETA: If you want proper, indisputable war crimes by the North Koreans, you don’t need to work very hard to find them. There was a substantial list in the now-closed thread.

That doesn’t make it unprovable, at all. If you have weapons that are physically incapable of targeted strikes, and you choose to blanket an entire island in rocket fire, then you have intentionally directed fire at everything on the island. The island had civilians on it. The requirements for point 12 are “Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population” or “civilian objects”. By directing attacks against the totality of the island, the civilians and civilian objects on the island had intentionally had attacks directed against them. There is no caveat that if attacks are directed at civilians and also at military targets, then the attacks directed against civilians aren’t counted. As such, point 12 stands.

The fact that there was a military base somewhere on the island doesn’t mean that NK didn’t target the entire island for attack, including both the military and civilian targets indiscriminately.

I cited and quoted the relevant text on proportionality, namely that the damage must be non-extreme in relation to the concrete military advantage that will be gained. By North Korea’s own claims, the military use that the island’s artillery was being put to was shelling open ocean. Attacking the entirety of the island’s population in reaction to that situation is “clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated”

Probably not.


I don’t think you’re reading the statutes adequately, and I’d really like you to provide a cite to back up your interpretation. Given that the DPRK didn’t have more precise weapons at hand, there is no practical difference between targeting just the military and what you call “indiscriminate” attacks. “Intent” implies causation. If you attack a military target, knowing that civilians are in the way, you do not “intend” to attack civilians —you just cannot do otherwise! But it gets worse! Since civilians are usually everywhere, your definition would effectively make all warfare illegal. Hence, I’m pretty dubious about it. “Directing attacks against the civilian population” needs to mean, you know, directing attacks against the civilian population.

Who cares what it was shelling? The military advantage comes from the South Korean assets being destroyed, not from being stopped in their activity. You’re allowed to attack jets on the ground —are they being put to use bombing you when they’re on the ground?

ETA: Noted on the armistice thing.

The burden of proof isn’t on me, it’s on you. The actual text has no caveats that attacks directed against civilians are acceptable as long as you’re using extensive and/or indiscriminate attacks to blanket an entire area. Merely that directing attacks against civilians is a breach. Do you have a cite?

I will provide one, however.
Page 136-137.


It goes on for a bit, and can’t be cut and pasted so I’m not going to write any more at present.

What do you mean, what I “call” indiscriminate attacks?
Do you dispute the fact that with BM-21 rockets discriminating attacks are impossible? That by choosing to use them that, by definition, NK engaged in indiscriminate attacks? Or that by targeting the entire Island, they targeted everything on the island?

Except NK deliberately attacked everything on the island, in toto. The intent was to attack everything, there was no attempt, at all, to limit collateral damage by focusing the center of the CEP circle on the military objective on the western tip of the island. They didn’t attack SK’s military position and happen to hit other targets as well, they attacked everything and hit everything
Civilians were not “in the way”, the NK military attacked the entire island, in its entirety. Of course civilians were included in the population of the entire island.

No, it wouldn’t. It would require targeted strikes on military targets that have collateral damage for anything absolutely impossible to avoid, rather than indiscriminate strikes on absolutely everything within a multi-kilometer circle at the center of a populated area. It’s the difference between using accurate munitions and confirming your targets while being as precise as possible with your strikes, and deliberately attacking an entire area because there is a military target somewhere within it.

The difference is that the military advantage that North Korea claimed, in its own words, was defending itself from the artillery strikes which occurred on November 23, 2010. Not a preemptive strike on artillery positions which might have been turned on it at some later date. The text says that it’s about the “concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated”. NK’s own statement says that the anticipated advantage is self-defense from the November 23rd SK artillery fire into empty water. As such bombarding an entire island is clearly excessive when compared to that concrete military objective.

Sorry for the double post, but as long as I’m quoting stuff:

Page 305


I’m curious what makes you think that Grad rockets aren’t indiscriminate, despite the cites I provided in the OP and/or what cites you have for your interpretation of international law in which using indiscriminate weaponry and killing civilians is not a war crime as long as there is a military target “in the line of fire”.

These laws are trying to square the circle. NK does not have any weapons that can distinguish between civilians and military with the degree of precision these laws seem to intend. I think that is shown by your point #8.

Look at it the other way round - if NK wants to attack this military base, then they are going to hit the surrounding civilians as well - it cannot be avoided, given the nature of their rockets.

The attack is evil and wrong, but it isn’t a war crime. “Within a couple of kilometers” is as close as the North Koreans can get, not a deliberate attack. How precise do you expect them to be?


Well, again, the facts seem to be that NK centered it’s barrage on the middle of the island so as to hit the entire thing, rather than the western tip so as to hit the military base. There’s also the fact that having only indiscriminate weaponry does not mean that a state can use it freely, but that can’t attack certain targets with it unless the concrete military benefit justifies it.

The argument for a war crime seems to rest primarily upon these rockets being impossible to target accurately against legitimate military targets, which is a very valid consideration. There are other weapons which are also impossible to target accurately, such as cluster bombs.

Would the OP state his views on whether the use of cluster bombs in populated areas would carry with it the presumed violation of the laws of war, in the same manner that the OP proposes that the use of the BM-21 on a populated area would be presumed to violate the laws of war.