Naval Incident and Denuclearization
By Tong Kim
The tragic incident of the ROK navy ship Cheonan ― which took at least 36 lives of the sailors aboard with eight still missing as of Sunday ― has emerged as a new additional factor to delay the resumption of nuclear talks with North Korea. Washington and Seoul have agreed to put off any effort to induce the North's return to six-party talks until after the cause of the incident is determined. This is an understatement of what might follow if it is confirmed that the North was involved.
The Seoul government has been very careful not to implicate directly any North Korean involvement in the sinking of the ship after it was ripped into two parts ― the bow and midsection separated from the stern. However, the South Korean media has speculated that the vessel was attacked by a North Korean torpedo. An official investigation team has undertaken the task of producing scientific evidence for the cause with the assistance of experts from the United States, Australia and Sweden.
A preliminary investigative report ― that was released after the stern was raised ― held that the Cheonan was impacted by a powerful ``external explosion" either directly in contact with or close to the right side of the stern of the ship. The report strongly implied that the explosive could have been a torpedo, although the investigators have not excluded other possible causes, including a hit by a mine or by a rock at the bottom of the sea. An ``internal explosion" and ``the old age of the ship" were excluded as possible causes.
Operations to hoist the bow and the midship section and to find debris or shrapnel are underway, while the search for the missing sailors continues. After all recoverable pieces have been retrieved; they will be subjected to a forensic examination. Completion of the probe will probably take a long time ― weeks, possibly even months ― before an unchallenged conclusion is reached. President Lee Myung-bak said he would take stern action upon any outcome of the investigation. In other words, he would punish those responsible whoever they may turn out to be.
Three weeks after the incident, Pyongyang denied involvement in the sinking of the ship, accusing the South Korean press of ``fabricating" a North Korean connection. If the culprit turns out to be the North, it would create a difficult situation for the Lee government in which it would be forced to make a hard choice from a narrow range of options.
A failure to take ``stern action" against the North would be disappointing to President Lee's conservative supporters at home who believe the South should not let them get away with such an unprovoked attack. A limited military action is emotionally conceivable, but it would likely be ruled out because: (1) retaliation would be too risky for the thriving South scheduled to host a G-20 conference in the fall, (2) the legitimacy of such action would be controversial in terms of international law, (3) the United States does not want a new military trouble at this point, and (4) other participants in the six-party talks would not support any military action for fear of an escalation into a full-fledged hostility.
A second option may include cutting off the inter-Korean dialogue, which has already been reduced to a minimum level, and possibly withdrawing from the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. This option would not be attractive because it would certainly further prickle tensions and it would create huge economic loss for the South Korean investors.
A third option is that Seoul takes the issue to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) for another resolution to condemn an act of violence and to seek further sanctions. But few additional sanction measures are available that would be effective, other than military sanctions, which would not pass the UNSC, where China and Russia hold veto rights.
The most likely option would be to demand an apology, punishment of those responsible and prevention of recurrences. It is not difficult to figure out what the North Korean response would be. They would flatly deny any involvement, as they have already.
If Seoul still wants to lodge protest against Pyongyang, it may want to look into the objectives of such an attack and whether it was possible without Kim Jong-il's order or his knowledge.
The second naval clash of 2002 in the West Sea, in which the South lost four lives and one patrol boat, may have been launched by the North Korean navy without direct order from Kim Jong-il. The North Korean navy could have wanted to recover Kim's confidence after it suffered a devastating defeat from the first clash of 1999, in which the North lost about 30 lives and one ship.
In 2009, a third clash took place in the same disputed waters below the Northern Limit Line ― that was unilaterally designated by the United States after the 1953 ceasefire, but never agreed upon by the North. In that incident, one North Korean ship was badly damaged and it retreated in flames and one North Korean sailor was killed. The South suffered no damage or casualties.
Even if the investigation ends up pointing at the North as the culprits, their motivation would remain a puzzling question. Some speculate that the North Korean attack was retaliation for their 2009 defeat, as the North did in 2002 for 1999. Others see the attack as an attempt to disrupt the South's hosting of the G-20 conference, as they exploded a South Korean airliner killing 115 passengers in November 1987 as an attempt to disrupt the 1988 Olympics that were to be held in Seoul.
There is a new turn of events that should have a bearing on North Korea. As President Obama makes progress towards a world without nuclear weapons, the denuclearization of North Korea seems to become a more distant goal to achieve. The successful conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last week ― in which leaders from 47 states agreed to secure nuclear materials from terrorists and to prevent further proliferation ― does not seem to have a positive impact on the North Koreans.
A new START agreement between the United States and Russia that would reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 on both sides is an encouraging development, but it would have little effect on North Korea that is believed to have six to eight nuclear bombs.
And the updated U.S. Nuclear Policy Review (NPR) provides a negative security assurance for non-nuclear weapons states complying with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations, since it means that the United States still keeps ``all options" open, including a preemptive nuclear strike against countries like North Korea and Iran. The NPR would ironically contribute to North Korea's claim that that their nuclear weapons are a deterrent against U.S. nuclear threats.
Because of the latest naval incident and because of other priorities, the North Korean nuclear issue has been put on the backburner again. What's your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.