North Korea is not an easy topic to discuss. The history of inter-Korea relation is long and complicated, but not knowing that history deprives one of the context that one must know to properly assess the situation at hand. Worse, the topic of North Korea is highly emotionally charged on nearly every aspect, which makes the tone of the discussion shrill, hyperbolic and ultimately unhelpful. In discussions about North Korea, commentators often do not think seriously about the consequences, but instead focus on delivering zingers that feels good to say but are wildly implausible and/or extremely dangerous.
More importantly, North Korea is a topic for which the Korean simply cannot give an answer. Many people far more brilliant and knowledgeable than the Korean have searched for an answer, but none has borne fruit. Thus, the Korean prepared a simplified, two-part dossier on this issue. First part will be the basic information that everyone should know in thinking about how to assess the ROKS Cheonan issue, and the second part consists of the relevant questions that we should be asking ourselves in thinking about this issue.
ROKS Cheonan -- What You Need to Know
Here are the basic facts. On March 26 of this year, ROKS Cheonan -- named after the city in Korea -- split in half and sank nearly instantly. Forty-six sailors died or went missing. After an international investigation, it has been more or less confirmed that Cheonan was attacked by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. North Korea is vigorously denying the accusations, but at this point there appears to be no other possible culprit. The critical piece of evidence was a remainder of a propeller for a torpedo, which carried Korean lettering.
ROKS Cheonan is being taken out of the water. (Source)
The attack on the Cheonan is the largest-scale attack by North Korea since the late 1980s. Up to late 1980s, North Korea was quite bold in its attempts for terrorism/military action. For example, in 1968 thirty-one North Korean commandos infiltrated Seoul and unsuccessfully attacked the presidential residence, killing many in the process. In 1974, a North Korean assassin fired at the South Korean president during a public address, but only managed to kill the First Lady. In 1983, North Korean spies bombed the South Korean president and his entourage in Myanmar, killing 21 including the Vice Prime Minister. In 1987 North Korean spies left a time bomb on a South Korean airliner which later detonated over the Indian Ocean, killing all 115 aboard.
But from the 1990s and beyond, North Korea was relatively quiet. While there were intermittent episodes of significant saber-rattling -- culminating in North Korea's threat of developing nuclear weapon a few years ago -- a deliberate military strike like this one simply did not happen in the last 20 years or so. The closest analogue would be the two naval skirmishes in 1999 and 2002, in which North and South Korean exchanged fire in the sea just south of the Northern Limit Line, which divides the North and the South.
But the attack on the Cheonan is significantly different from those skirmishes. It is true that those naval skirmishes resulted in some casualties and a loss of a ship -- in 2002, South Korea lost six sailors and a gunboat. But in the end, South Korea was easily victorious in the two naval skirmishes by any objective indication. Also, while nothing about the war should be stated cavalierly, the two naval skirmishes were essentially fair fights. North Korean navy provoked South Korean navy, South Korean navy responded and emerged victorious after a battle (although not without some damage.) In contrast, many more died on Cheonan, a more significant ship than a gunboat. More importantly, this was a surprise attack with no forewarning, instead of an outright provocation leading to a battle.
North Korea internally is going through a significant change. The long-time despot Kim Jong-Il is in ill health, and a three-generation succession is a hard sell even in North Korea. Also, what little we know about the announced heir, Kim Jong-Un, does not bode well. The younger Kim is only 27 years old and is apparently fond of shooting things, having majored artillery in Kim Il-Sung University.
Recently, North Korea instituted a currency reform which ended in a disaster, causing runaway inflation and severe disruption of food supply. In a rare gesture, North Korean regime even apologized to its people for the abysmal failure of the currency reform. It is fair to think that the internal instability is connected to this attack. Often, North Korea uses an external threat (that is self-generated unbeknownst to its people) as an excuse to crack down on its people, and this attack could be a part of such a plan.
Also, recent inter-Korea relations have been chilly at best. The last two administrations of Korea were pro-engagement toward North Korea, which over time became fairly unpopular among South Koreans. The current Lee Myung-Bak administration won the election with an explicit promise of taking a harder line against the North. So far Lee has stood firm on his promise, significantly reducing South Korea's aid toward North Korea.
On May 23, Lee administration unveiled the sanction plans against North Korea in response. South Korea will stop all economic aid to North Korea, except for aid aimed toward infants and children. South Korea will also significantly reduce the economic exchange program currently in place. Also, North Korean ships are no longer allowed to pass through South Korean waters. (Previously, the two Koreas had a treaty whereby airplanes and ships could pass through each other's territorial air and waters.) South Korea will resume the propaganda broadcast toward the North, and stated that in case of a naval provocation by the North, South Korea will annihilate the naval base from which the North Korean ship left.
In response, North Korea announced that it will cut off all communications with South Korea, including the Red Cross Communications Representative at Panmunjeom that had been operational for 39 years. It is also making overtures of further provocations/attacks. These measures essentially amount to reverting back to the Cold War posture between the two Koreas.
United States, through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is exploring ways to sanction North Korea. In particular, Clinton is asking China to intervene. Japan is also considering a sanction. UN Securities Council may be called upon to act as well, which will ratchet up the sanctions further.
More after the jump.
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ROKS Cheonan -- What You Need to Think About
With this information, here are some questions to think about.
- Will North Korea attempt this type of attack again?
For better or for worse, North Korea's actions in the last 20 years or so were predictable. It is a mistake to think that Kim Jong-Il is a madman who will fire nuclear missile for shits and giggles. He is a calculating politician who is interested in exactly one thing and one thing only: the survival of the regime, and by extension, continued enjoyment of his power.
Also, if there should be a full-scale war between the two Koreas, there is no doubt as to the eventual outcome -- South Korea will emerge victorious. In fact, Kim Jong-Il knows that the beginning of a full-scale war is equivalent to his annihilation within minutes. Then the fact that North Korea would engage in this type of attack, raising the possibility of a full-scale war, is counter-intuitive. Even if North Korea needed a rise in tension for internal reasons, North Korea has been able to do so without necessarily causing casualty -- for example, by testing a nuclear weapon.
And this is the most worrisome aspect of this attack -- that the North Korean regime is no longer predictable. North Korean regime has talked big, but rarely followed through in an actual attack like this one. (For example, in 1994 North Korea famously announced that it will turn Seoul into a "sea of flames". No real action followed.) But now, things have changed, and no one knows how the situation will progress.
- Will South Korea's response be enough to deter this type of attack from happening again?
Withdrawal of the aid and the economic exchange program is unlikely to mean anything to the North Korean regime. Recall that Kim Jong-Il regime did not even flinch while millions died of starvation in North Korea in the early 1990s. While it does hurt North Korea's pocketbook, Kim Jong-Il's personal pocketbook will not be significantly affected.
It is not clear as of yet if South Korea's new resolution to fully retaliate whenever this type of attack happens again can deter such an attack. North Korea announced that it will attack any propaganda broadcast speakers set up in the South. South Korea responded that if they are attacked, it will retaliate accordingly. But it remains to be seen how much tolerance South Korean administration for the tension and the increased chance of a full-scale war that will inevitably follow such a retaliation.
- Is there anything else South Korea can do to deter this type of attack from happening again?
If the North Korean regime only cares about its survival, the only possible response by which South Korea can gain leverage is to threaten the survival of the regime. To this end, Mr. Joo Seong-Ha recommended improved intelligence on where Kim Jong-Il is at all times, and at least three stealth bombers that can be used to immediately kill Kim Jong-Il. But no matter how broad (e.g. full-scale war) or narrow (e.g. targeted assassination of Kim Jong-Il) the response is, South Korea must back the response with the gumption that a full-scale war might actually occur. For now, South Korea is responding by creating as much disruption without a military response, i.e. propaganda broadcasting. As discussed earlier, North Korea is reacting strongly even to this.
South Korean soldiers are installing the propaganda speakers. (Source)
While the second Korean War will almost certainly end in the South's victory, the central dilemma for South Korea has been the same for the last 40 years -- Seoul, the nation's capital with the population of 10 million people in its metropolitan area, is only 30 miles away from the DMZ. Along the DMZ, North Korea has a number of long-range artillery and missiles aimed at Seoul. Should North Korea decide to fire them, there is no way for South Korea to completely intercept them. Should North Korea decide to wage war, Seoul must endure at least one or two rounds of missiles and artillery shells raining down on Seoul before South Korean and American air forces and take out the missiles and cannons. Thousands will surely die -- and we did not even get into the economic loss that South Korea will suffer. This is the dilemma that makes South Korea hesitate to even think about the possibility of a full-scale war, especially because most policymakers of South Korea personally remember the devastation following Korean War.
This really is the bottom line for South Korea -- is it willing to gamble on the full-scale war?
- Is there anything anyone else can do to deter this type of attack again?
There is not much the U.S. can do, other than urging other countries to fall in line and sanction North Korea. Japan's sanction can be a little more effective, because pro-North Korea Korean-Japanese in Japan are known to send money and goods to North Korea. But ultimately sanctions from Japan will not amount to much effect either.
Much of it hinges upon China, which at this point is the only guarantor of safety for North Korea. However, China has been lukewarm about America's request to punish North Korea; A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Ma Zhaoxu, was noncommittal, saying of the Korea crisis, “We hope all the relevant parties will exercise restraint and remain cool-headed.”
One can hope that China will realize that the inter-Korea relations have changed dramatically since it formed its friendship with North Korea. In the sixty years following Korean War, South Korea has unequivocally won the race of proving which one of the two Koreas was better. Partnership with South Korea is becoming increasingly valuable for China, while partnership with North Korea is becoming increasingly worthless. At some point, the balance may shift and China may throw its support behind South Korea. But it is unlikely that China is ready to do that as of now.
- What does this mean for the reunification of the two Koreas?
There is much debate on this issue, but at the end of the day, no one knows. On one hand, this may drive the South Korean people to antagonize North Korea further such that they would no longer support, or actively oppose, reunification efforts. On the other hand, if we are to accept that reunification can happen only if the Kim Jong-Il regime disappears, this attack may serve as the catalyst for serious destabilization efforts -- despite the risk of war -- to begin.
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