Victor Cha has argued that North Korea does not commit provocations when engaged; a short paper “Has South Korea’s Engagement Policy Reduced North Korea’s Provocations?,” in the current North Korea Review, disputes that notion, at least when it comes to the Northern Limit Line.
Kim Insoo and Lee Minyong say forget about the big picture: when it comes to the NLL, it’s the economy, stupid. The argument is quite simple. North Korean fishermen are assigned quantity quotas. When North Korea’s exports falter, the quotas assigned to North Korean fishermen are raised (to make up the export shortfall) or enforcement tightened. Given their dilapidated vessels, rather than going out to sea further, they head south, pushing the envelope on the NLL. Kim and Lee show that NLL incidents are not correlated with either humanitarian aid or inter-Korean trade, but rather tracks an index of how dependent North Korea is on fish exports.
The problem, as Kim and Lee see it, is that North Korean patrol boats accompany the fishing ships south, so that an understandable attempt to poach is conflated with something more sinister, potentially contributing to dangerous miscalculations on both sides. One policy would be to expand functional cooperation in fishing to diffuse the military aspects of the situation, but they argue that prior efforts along these lines have not yielded beneficial spillovers in the military sphere. Instead, Kim and Lee argue that “South Korea needs to attack in response to the slightest provocation by North Korean boats.” By this they mean that South Korean collide-and-push tactics induced North Korean preemptive fire resulting in significant South Korean casualties; a better policy would be for the South Korean navy to engage heavily in warning fire to encourage the retreat of North Korean boats back across their side of the NLL.