Cheonan tragedy: is there an exit strategy?
Korea Times correspondent
BEIJING ― It's time for Seoul to consider an exit strategy for the Cheonan incident, however, finding one that is reliable and executable may be easier said than done.
"I am not sure whether there is an ideal solution," said Mike Chinoy, a former CNN senior Asia correspondent and the author of "Meltdown: the Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis," which now has a Korean-language edition.
Seoul has been campaigning for punitive measures against Pyongyang, which sank a South Korean frigate in March, killing 46 sailors.
But it also doesn't want the Cheonan incident to prolong the tension on the Korean Peninsula for the obvious reason that doing so is a drain on the nation's resources and energy when its priority is in getting its economy back on track.
The security liability also exacts a toll on investment sentiment and deters foreign travelers. For example, Taiwan announced that if tension aggravates on the Korean Peninsula, it will evacuate its citizens.
South Korea is also scheduled to host the G-20 summit later this year where 20 world leaders will descend on Seoul. There is no doubt that the South wants to assure the world leaders that they will be safe when they are in the capital in November.
"The challenge now for South Korea is to figure out how to have some international criticism assigned to North Korea, and at the same time to find an avenue to eventually get diplomacy restarted," Chinoy said.
Formulating an exit strategy has entered an opportune time, now that the local elections are over, creating more room for cooperation across political parties. A survey by SBS on May 30, showed that more than half of the voters (54 percent) said the Cheonan was a factor in casting their votes.
Two years ago, President Lee Myung-bak won a landslide victory on a pledge to be tough on the North. Since then, tension has escalated. After Seoul issued a raft of retaliatory measures against the North for the Cheonan sinking, the North responded with a threat of war. Some people started to worry about a possible major arms clash with the North.
Then, Lee's Grand National Party suffered an unexpected setback in the June 2 elections, which was widely considered a midterm judgment on his presidency.
"If the local election results in South Korea are interpreted as a sign that a significant number of South Koreans are not comfortable with Lee's approach (on North Korea), it kind of creates a climate where it might be possible for the South Korean government to signal somewhat milder approach down the road, or to signal that once they go through the steps of criticizing North Korea, they are willing to get back to the talks," said Chinoy.
Chinoy, who has visited North Korea 14 times, advises against continuing the so-called "pressure approach" because it has the potential for more incidents. Pyongyang has shown a trenchant attitude to outside pressure and punishments.
"In all the research I did for my book, over and over, you find this pattern that when somebody tried to get tough with North Koreans, or to use sanctions against or pressure North Koreans, even though those measures inflict pain on North Korea, I see very little evidence to suggest that it produces a positive change in North Korean behavior," he said.
For that matter, he worries about the South's ban on North Korean commercial ships to come near Jeju Island, or the South's announcing of U.S.-South Korea anti-submarine exercises. "These gestures give North Korea the power to determine when and where something might happen because now it's up to the North to decide to challenge any of these measures.
"I have the impression that the right-wing opinion that is surrounding Lee Myung-bak and also putting pressure on him, is sort of comfortable with heightened tension and confrontation with the North," said Chinoy.
An exit strategy should be formulated also because a military retaliation against the North is not an option for Seoul for fear of widening tension. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Sunday also ruled out a military option against North Korea in an interview with the BBC.
Diplomatic efforts through the U.N. also face hurdles as China, a veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member and the North's long-time enabler, has so far demurred to Seoul seeking Beijing's condemnation of the Kim Jong-il regime.
Chinoy, who sees the Cheonan attack as the North's revenge for its humiliating defeat in the November clash with the South, also believes that the public and press discussions have so far lost sight of the fundamental context in which this incident took place.
In the 2007 summit meeting between Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il, the two reached a number of agreements including one aimed at reducing tension in the waters off the western coast of Korea.
"When the Lee Myug-bak administration took office, they clearly signaled they did not feel bound by any of these previous agreements. The Lee administration attempted to unilaterally rewrite the rules to put greater demand on North Korea for reciprocity," he said.
Chinoy doubts the effectiveness of such approach when it comes to dealing with the North. "In a system like North Korea, Kim Jong-il is God. When God endorses an agreement and somebody then turns around and walks away from it, it is like poking God in the eye," Chinoy said, adding this understanding of the North's internal dynamic was not factored into the South's strategic thinking.
He sees no very satisfying way-out in sight. "The key thing here is to have an exit strategy in this attempt to pressure North Korea and not to give them a pass on the outrageous attack on the one hand, but also to formulate it in such a way that once this immediate period of muscle flexing passes, there is then an avenue to resume either the six-party talks, or to raise the issue of negotiations towards a peace process.
"The problem is there isn't a simple solution. Even if you resume the talks, you will have a whole new series of very, very difficult questions. But there is no question that when a diplomatic process is underway, generally the level of tension on the Korean Peninsula eases," Chinoy said.