Aftermath of ship sinking
By Frank Ching
The full report of an international investigation into the sinking of a South Korean warship in March under mysterious circumstances should, at long last, set to rest any remaining doubts of North Korea’s culpability.
The investigation into the sinking of the 1,200-ton Cheonan, which led to the death of 46 seamen, was led by South Korea but included experts from the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and Sweden.
As the report made clear, each country made its own contributions. Swedish investigators ruled out the ship running aground as the cause of its breaking apart and sinking, the United States and Britain conducted simulations that concluded that the most likely explanation was a torpedo attack and Canada joined the U.S., Australia and Britain in a multinational combined task force that identified North Korea as the culprit.
The release of the report will hinder efforts by China to reconvene the six-party talks, which it has hosted and whose participants include the U.S., Japan and Russia as well as North and South Korea.
The Chinese have been eager to “turn over the page of the Cheonan incident as soon as possible” in order to make “joint efforts to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
They have also interpreted joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises off the Korean Peninsula as being aimed not at deterring North Korea but as a threat to China. They have been particularly sensitive over the planned presence of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea, choosing to see this as an attempt to check Chinese power.
Former American President Jimmy Carter, who was in North Korea recently to negotiate the release of a U.S. citizen and who subsequently visited Beijing and held talks there, has reported that Pyongyang “wants to restart negotiations on a comprehensive peace treaty with the United States and South Korea” and has urged the early resumption of the six-party talks, which broke down last year.
It is true, as the former president says, that the components of such an agreement have been “fairly constant” since the 1990s. But that is the problem. As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently, “I am tired of buying the same horse twice,” in effect paying North Korea to again dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.
A comprehensive agreement was reached as far back as 2005 and confirmed in 2007 but the talks broke down last year because North Korea could not satisfy the United States on the issue of verification.
Unless either country has changed its position, there seems little point in resuming the six-party talks, knowing that they will lead down the same blind alley.
Another approach may be to improve inter-Korean relations. There has been some movement in this area, with North Korea asking the South for food aid after recent disastrous floods. As a result, South Korea is resuming the trucking of rice to the North after more than two years.
North Korea has also proposed another “family reunion” at which members of families divided since the Korean War in the 1950s can meet. Such a meeting could be held as early as next month depending on the negotiations.
But since there are tens of thousands of divided families and North Korea will only allow 100 family members from each side, the meeting will not go very far to meet the need.
Still, it is progress of sorts. North Korea has also made other conciliatory gestures, such as releasing the crew of a South Korean fishing vessel that it seized last month.
Pyongyang has also offered to hold military talks with the South on such issues as South Korean propaganda and the disputed maritime border.
But given that South Korea’s not unreasonable position insists that North Korea must first apologize for the attack on the Cheonan, it is difficult to see substantial improvement in intra-Korean relations in the near future since North Korea denies that it is to blame.
China, besides simply calling on all sides to return to the six-party talks, should put some pressure on its North Korean ally to repair the damage that it has done.
In the absence of any sign of a change of heart in Pyongyang, there is little point in resuming talks. And if North Korea refuses to acknowledge responsibility for sinking the Cheonan, there seems little likelihood of any substantial improvement in relations between the two sides of the divided peninsula.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator in Hong Kong. He can be reached at Frank.email@example.com.