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 co-ordinated 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.
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 South-East 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 utilise 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.
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 demilitarised 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 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 on 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 co-ordinate actions with the international community to condemn the 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 utilised 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 co-operate 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. Second, 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.