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The Cheonan Attack: Torpedoing Chance of Peace?

North Korea – impoverished and isolated – depends on others for basic needs and lashes out with a series of provocations, most targeting economically vibrant South Korea. The most recent was the March 26 firing of a torpedo at the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan in disputed waters; 46 crew members died. For many years, South Korea aimed for good relations with a sunshine policy, explains Scott Snyder, director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at The Asia Foundation. But the senseless belligerence continues, North Korea emboldened by its possession of crude nuclear weapons. No longer willing to make payoffs in exchange for empty promises of peace negotiations, South Korea expects the UN Security Council to punish North Korea and asks China to consider how its support enables the reckless regime. Those longing for stability on the peninsula confront a choice: ignoring the provocations, thus encouraging further attacks, or demanding accountability. – YaleGlobal

The Cheonan Attack: Torpedoing Chance of Peace?

North Korea’s ongoing provocations against South Korea put China in the middle
Scott Snyder
YaleGlobal, 27 May 2010
Each his own: From the top, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il with China's President Hu Jintao, early May, 2010; below, Hillary Clinton with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, later in the month

SEOUL: The cause of the mysterious sinking of a South Korean corvette and loss of 46 members of a 104-person crew has been identified as a North Korean torpedo. Amidst renewed heightening of tension in the peninsula, the question emerges:  If the sinking of the Cheonan is another blip in a long line of unanswered North Korean provocations, or does it mark a turning point for the Korean peninsula? The incident will also test China’s diplomatic skill, as its support for Pyongyang comes under an unprecedented spotlight. Despite North Korean denials, the conclusion by a multinational investigation has led to soul-searching regarding South Korean military readiness and the need to reduce South Korea’s vulnerability to this sort of attack. 

The South Korean government is trying to make the incident a turning point in inter-Korean relations by pursuing an unprecedented effort to hold North Korea accountable for its actions with a range of internationally coordinated strategies while avoiding escalation into a military conflict: In a nationally televised speech on May 24th, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced curtailment of inter-Korean trade and exchanges, a halt to the transit of North Korean ships through South Korean waters allowed for almost a decade as part of the Sunshine Policy of previous South Korean administrations, pledges of an immediate military response to future North Korean provocations and an effort to obtain the censure of North Korea at the UN Security Council. The speech and other South Korean follow-up measures to the investigation are designed to impose responsibility and punishment on North Korea for its actions.

Trying to make the sinking a turning
point in inter-Korean relations, South
Korea pursues an unprecedented effort
to hold North Korea accountable for its actions.

On previous occasions, North Korean provocations – including the infiltration into South Korea of assassins who tried to reach the Blue House in 1969, the bombing murder of over half of South Korea’s cabinet in Rangoon in the mid-1980s and the mid-air explosion of a Korean Air flight in Southeast Asia prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympics – have been staged by North Korean leaders with virtual impunity. Given North Korea’s history of relatively cost-free provocation, it’s easy to imagine that the North assumes South Korea has more to lose from renewed military conflict than the North. 

North Korean leaders probably have the impression – reinforced through economic benefits gained under the economic engagement policies led by progressive administrations – that South Korea will do more and pay more to avoid war than the North, giving Pyongyang an implicit advantage and incentive to utilize small-scale provocations as part of an extortion strategy – a way of maintaining the upper hand in inter-Korean relations and receiving economic payoffs in return for not threatening South Korean prosperity. 

Add to this the possibility that a nuclear-capable North Korea may have incorporated into its psychology the idea that it is less vulnerable to attack because its self-styled nuclear “deterrent” has been enhanced as a result of two nuclear tests – that they can initiate more active low-level conventional provocations without bringing an effective counter-response from South Korea and its US ally out of concern about the North’s nuclear weapon. Such calculation certainly limits the South Korean government’s effort to exact a price from North Korea without further escalation of tensions.

North Korean leaders probably have the impression that South Korea will do more and pay more to avoid war than the North, giving Pyongyang an implicit advantage.

The question of whether changes in North Korea’s post-nuclear test psychology might enable Pyongyang to undertake new forms of guerilla activity or stealth operations is a special concern of the US-ROK alliance, which has become accustomed to the idea that its conventional deterrence is unchallenged even at low levels. During the Cold War, hundreds of low-level provocations by North Korea along the demilitarized zone occurred each year, but those remained limited, eventually disappearing in the 1990s. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has avoided direct involvement in more than a decade of sporadic inter-Korean confrontations in the disputed West Sea area where South Korea enforces its Northern Limit Line (NLL), unilaterally declared by South Korea separate from the 1953 armistice agreement. 

The Cheonan incident may mark a turning point toward more active US involvement in monitoring and support of the NLL, active US involvement in the Cheonan investigation, the announcement of new combined naval exercises and more active US support for the development of anti-submarine capabilities near the NLL.

North Korea is likely offended by South Korean efforts to seek international pressure to address what North Korea no doubt sees as primarily an inter-Korean matter.

North Korea has responded poorly to South Korea’s announcement of the interim investigation results, stating that any effort to blame North Korea could lead to “all out war.” North Korea is likely to be more offended by South Korean efforts to bring international pressure to bear indirectly through China and the United Nations to address what North Korea no doubt sees as primarily an inter-Korean matter. The North remains frustrated by the April 2009 UN Presidential Statement condemning its missile test, which drew a strong and immediate reaction from Pyongyang – including the threat to conduct another nuclear test. That statement reflected consensus within the UN Security Council to condemn North Korea’s launch short of the level of support necessary to adopt a formal council resolution, based on China’s objections to stronger action by the council.

“We believe it is in everyone’s interest, including China, to make a persuasive case for North Korea to change direction,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said May 26 in Seoul.

Success of South Korea’s effort to impose a price on the North at the UN relies primarily on the ability to impose economic costs and lead international condemnation against Pyongyang – both facets pointed at China as an indirect way of influencing the North.  In this approach, South Korea views China as an enabler for North Korea and pressures Beijing to coordinate actions with the international community to condemn the provocations.

South Korean requests for UN Security Council action pose a challenge for China, requiring clear signals whether
it will condone further North Korean provocations.

South Korean reductions in inter-Korean trade and economic relations will make North Korea more dependent on China for economic assistance, a development which enhances China’s economic leverage with Pyongyang. For decreasing inter-Korean economic relations to have the effect of putting pressure on Pyongyang, Beijing cannot be willing to replace South Korean economic assistance with its own. China’s enhanced economic leverage with North Korea also feeds back into an ongoing South Korean domestic political debate over whether China’s expanded economic leverage in the North might be utilized to prevent North Korea’s collapse or forestall unification. 

South Korean requests for UN Security Council action pose a delicate challenge for China, requiring clear signals whether it will condone further North Korean provocations at the cost of rising regional tensions or cooperate in stronger international punishments against North Korea. 

China’s main interest on the Korean peninsula is to maintain stability, but South Korea’s aggressive approach raises difficulties for China:

First, it brings into relief for China a potential contradiction between maintenance of stability and maintenance of the status quo as it becomes clear that North Korea’s direction under its current leadership is inherently unstable. Secondly, it places China into the position of having to choose between being cast as North Korea’s enabler and protector – thus guaranteeing the North impunity for its actions that have endangered stability on the Korean peninsula – and China’s concern that North Korea is being backed into a corner and might use passage of another UN condemnatory statement in 2010 as a trigger for more serious difficulties. How China decides to handle the Cheonan will go a long way toward determining whether the sinking marks a turning point or reflects continued business-as-usual on the Korean peninsula.

Scott Snyder is director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at The Asia Foundation, adjunct senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “China’s Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security.” The views expressed here are his personal views and do not reflect official positions of the organizations with which he is affiliated.

Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

10 June 2010
I wish there weren't any war and I also wish that Kim Jung Il should just sign a peace treaty and be the way it used to be.... and not cause a war...... war is a lot of money a lot of people die...... it's just sad...!!!!!
-Amy Kim , La Canada Flintridge,CA
5 June 2010
The first telltale sign of an official smokescreen involves the location of the Choenan sinking – Byeongnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. On the westernmost fringe of South Korean territory, the island is dominated by a joint US-South Korean base for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations.
The sea channel between Byeongnyeong and the North Korean coast is narrow enough for both sides to be in artillery range of each other.
Anti-sub warfare is based on sonar and acoustic detection of underwater craft. Since civilian traffic is not routed through the channel, the noiseless conditions are near-perfect for picking up the slightest agitation, for example from a torpedo and any submarine that might fire it.
North Korea admits it does not possess an underwater craft stealthy enough to slip past the advanced sonar and audio arrays around Byeongnyeong Island.
The sinking took place not in North Korean waters but well inside tightly guarded South Korean waters, where a slow-moving North Korean submarine would have great difficulty operating covertly and safely, unless it was equipped with AIP (air-independent propulsion) technology.
The Cheonan sinking occurred in the aftermath of the March 11-18 Foal Eagle Exercise, which included anti-submarine maneuvers by a joint US-South Korean squadron of five missile ships. A mystery surrounds the continued presence of the US missile cruisers for more than eight days after the ASW exercise ended.
Also, a reporter Joohee Cho of ABC News, picked up the key fact that the Foal Eagle flotilla curiously included the USNS Salvor, a diving-support ship with a crew of 12 Navy divers.
The lack of any minesweepers during the exercise leaves only one possibility: the Salvor was laying bottom mines.
Apart from a North Korean torpedo, a US mine can be very well responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan.
-captainjohann , bangalore,India
28 May 2010
North Korea's sinking the Cheonan is reprehensible, but did not occur in a vacuum. My recent post
summarizes some arguments along those lines, including statements by former Director of Los Alamos, Siegfried Hecker, that casts the DPRK's nuclear program in a very different light from that usually portrayed.
Martin Hellman
-Martin Hellman , Stanford, CA
27 May 2010
Once again , nothing will be gained from a nuclear war!Evil begets evil.
-Tim Smith , Granbury,TX
27 May 2010
Once again , nothing will be gained from a nuclear war!Evil begets evil.
-Tim Smith , Granbury,TX