By Sunny Lee
Korea Times correspondent
BEIJING ― South Korea should develop a new strategy in dealing with North Korea, as evidence on the sinking of the Cheonan won't change China's engagement posture with the North, and the United States will also eventually want to move the stalled six-party nuclear talks forward, said a U.S. analyst on Korean affairs.
Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, said while Washington stands by Seoul's firm position of not taking part in the nuclear talks until it determines the cause for the sinking of the Cheonan, it doesn't want its Asian ally to drag the disarmament negotiation process on for an extended period.
"As far as the six-party nuclear talks are concerned, I do not think the U.S. will change its mind in the immediate future," Sigal said in an interview with The Korea Times. Yet he added that the U.S. cannot wait for "months," either.
There is now new geopolitical dynamics concerning the sunken ROK Navy warship and the six-party talks, created by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's visit to China last week, which came at a sensitive time ― investigations are still underway on the sinking of the Cheonan that killed 46 sailors. Pyongyang remains a prime suspect, though it denies involvement.
Officials in Seoul have said they will not take part in the six-party talks until they determine the cause of the ship's destruction.
Now, with the revived hope for a resumption following Kim's visit to China in which he told the Chinese he would be willing to provide "favorable conditions" for the negotiations to happen, South Korea is concerned that the other parties, including its ally the U.S., will engage Pyongyang and move forward on the talks, leaving the South behind.
Seoul also wants to take Pyongyang to the U.N. Security Council if it is proven that the North was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan. The preparation and the ensuing resolution at the U.N. are expected to take weeks or even months.
Sigal, who advised the U.S. government on "strategy dealing with North Korea" by testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, said there were two critical conditions that would enable South Korea to achieve its goal.
"One, the investigation has to find unambiguous evidence. Unambiguous not in the minds of South Koreans but in the minds of Chinese and others. Secondly, the investigation cannot drag on forever. You cannot wait for months."
Evidence won't persuade China
South Korea is hoping for cooperation from China over the sinking. Beijing is the host of the six-party talks, a member of the United Nations Security Council, and importantly, a key ally to North Korea.
It can exercise its veto power at the U.N. over any punitive measures against the North even if Pyongyang is found to be responsible for the fatal attack.
To persuade China, South Korea plans to provide "scientific and objective evidence" briefing it on the outcome of the investigation before it makes a public announcement.
Sigal is pessimistic about this strategy. "There may be technical, forensic evidence in question, which is going to be very difficult to persuade China to act."
Yet more importantly, Sigal said, Beijing is ultimately predisposed not to add pressure on Pyongyang because doing so would go against China's long-term strategy of engaging the North.
"The premise of those who believe sanctions would work if China joins them is wrong because it's not that country's policy. It has never been a Chinese policy. And it won't be affected by Cheonan, either," he said.
UN sanctions will have limited effect
Sigal also said even if South Korea was successful in taking North Korea to the U.N. Security Council, any reaction there will be limited.
"The U.N. isn't going to say, ok you're going to have a naval embargo or something like that. By the way, that's the last thing you want to do, because by doing so, you will have more naval incidents in the West Sea and more dead bodies on both sides, not fewer," Sigal said.
If the U.N. metes out a lukewarm response, the U.S. will be in an awkward position of managing South Korea's frustration, which might lead to a potential rift between the two allies.
"If there is overreaction in South Korea, I think we could really get into trouble here," Sigal said.
He said punitive measures may satisfy Seoul's longing to punish Pyongyang, but it may not change the latter's behavior. "It will keep North Korea in a hole. Some people like that. But I think it's not good for the long-term interest of South Korea or the United States.
"The South Korean government wants to show the North Koreans who's tougher. This is the game South Korea is playing. The problem with that game is that it is the game of North Koreans. That's what North Koreans are good at."
Sigal knows the mounting pressure the Lee administration faces ahead of the local elections. "I understand he has to appease the right wing sector with the elections coming up in June. So, he has to argue for punishment, but he should argue for a very limited punitive gesture."
But for Lee to do so would be very unpopular in large portions of South Korea right now. "But it]s very important for South Koreans to think very hard about not just easing the situation, but think about how they got into it and how they can get out of it.
"I know what the South Korean government wants to do. But punishment isn't going to solve it," he said.