Response to NK provocation
By Tong Kim
Last week’s first-ever “2+2” meeting attended by the foreign and defense ministers of South Korea and the United States was the culmination of a joint allied response against North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan warship. The meeting added teeth to the recent U.N. Security Council statement, which did not impose any new sanctions nor explicitly condemn North Korea.
The “2+2” talks produced two outcomes: a symbolic U.S. commitment to the alliance and the announcement of new U.S.-ROK military exercises and additional U.S. financial sanctions on the Pyongyang regime.
Through a joint statement and their visits to Panmunjom and the Korean War Memorial, the four ministers demonstrated ample solidarity and commitment to “deter and defeat” North Korean threats. The “2+2” meeting appeared to be a timely and successful practice of declaratory diplomacy, backed by a show of force, although the meeting had been arranged to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, prior to the occurrence of the Cheonan incident.
The U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense cannot be overemphasized as long as the North Korean threats persist. However, this part of the message was not new to the North Koreans, who had no reason to believe the U.S. commitment to South Korea had weakened. What was new to them was a clear message that Washington and Seoul were not ready to consider an “exit strategy” from the aftermath of the Cheonan incident.
Washington would not talk to the North, after flatly rejecting Pyongyang’s overtures to resume the six-party talks. Washington is solidly behind Seoul’s demand that Pyongyang admit its responsibility for the Cheonan, offer an apology and promise the prevention of similar provocations.
After more than three months of talks, the United States and South Korea have announced a series of combined and joint exercises both on the East and West Seas, beginning with the largest-ever exercise ― dubbed Invincible Spirit ― on the East Sea. More than 20 U.S. and ROK naval vessels, including the George Washington carrier strike group, and 8,000 men and women from all services will participate in the exercise. A formidable assortment of aircraft, including F-22 Raptor fighters, will be a critical contingent of the exercise.
These exercises may look like overkill, if their objectives are to send a “strong message” to the North and to reinforce the current deterrent posture. The message seems to be directed at the South Korean and the Chinese audiences as well. In a larger strategic context, South Korea is finessing a defining position in the midst of the delicate dynamics of power between Washington and Beijing.
Washington described the exercises as “defensive,” but there is only a hairline between “defensive “and “offensive” when an aircraft carrier, which by definition is considered as an offensive weapons system, is involved. A modern naval combat doctrine involving a carrier strike group focuses on littoral operations to destroy enemy fire positions and clearing the enemy submarines and mines in support of landing operations. “Defensive” should mean to defeat the enemy once deterrence fails.
China’s reaction to Seoul’s premature publicity of the George Washington’s participation in an exercise in the West Sea was understandable. Despite Washington’s emphasis that the exercise would target North Korea, China took it as a direct challenge to its own security, if the USS George Washington openly shows up on the West Sea. The Pentagon revealed a prior naval exercise in the West Sea had involved the U.S. aircraft carrier. This unpublicized exercise could have been less intolerable to China.
Apart from any political consideration that may have gone into the decision to conduct the first exercise on the East Sea, and despite the complaints among some conservative quarters in Washington and Seoul for caving in to China, it was a good thing to avoid new tensions with China. Washington’s relationship with Beijing was already strained over a recent U.S. sale of weapons to Taiwan and the Cheonan incident. Dialogue with China is becoming more crucial as the situation in North Korea becomes murkier.
A second substantive part of the “2+2’s” outcome was to intensify U.S. financial sanctions to cause pains to the leadership and elites of the North. The details of these sanctions will be announced by the U.S. State Department in two weeks. These sanctions will include designating and freezing assets of entities and individuals involved in the proliferation of WMDs, strengthening international cooperation to disrupt illegal trade by the North, and prohibiting North Korean officials from becoming involved in proliferation and other illicit activities. Most of these sanctions are already stipulated by UN Resolutions 1718 and 1874.
With regard to the efficacy of sanctions as they are applied to North Korea, many realists have argued: while sanctions may contribute to the reduction of illegal transactions and they may well hurt the North Korean leadership, they would not change North Korean behavior or bring them down, unless China would fully participate in the implementation of sanctions. Since the U.N. sanctions were put in place and South Korea cut off its aid, China has sharply increased its economic support for the North.
In the practice of “strategic patience” or “strategic distance,” Washington still keeps the door open to nuclear diplomacy but under a stringent set of conditions ― which could lead to normalized relations and a peace agreement with the United States. In Seoul, Secretary Clinton spelled out some of them: “…North Korea cease its provocative behavior, halt its threat and belligerence towards its neighbors, take irreversible steps to fulfill its denuclearization commitments and comply with international law.”
Given the unlikelihood that North Korea will come forward to meet these conditions, there is not much hope for a diplomatic solution. 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 .