By all appearances, the Korean peninsula is a tinderbox: since South Korea blamed its northern neighbor for sinking the warship Cheonan in March, the countries have ratcheted up the rhetoric, threatened to blast propaganda across the border, cut off trade, and tried to draw allies like Washington and Beijing to their side. North Korea has put on a show of denial and intransigence. Its National Defense Commission claimed the investigation was a “farce” and threatened an “all-out war” if Seoul and the international community slap sanctions on the North; in fact, four North Korean submarines have been missing from a naval base since Monday, putting the Southern navy on high alert.
But this isn’t quite the meltdown it appears to be. While Kim is publicly holding firm, behind the scenes his government seems to be trying to find a way out of the fracas. Its language has become more moderate, it may be contemplating an apology, and it may already have punished a naval commander in connection with the torpedo attack. That means the crisis is likely to fall far short of the “all-out war” the North initially promised. The softer side of Kim Jong-il’s regime, it seems, wants out of this crisis, stat.
While its positions remain unbending, the North Korean leadership toned down the bellicose rhetoric in its government statements—the key indicator of Pyongyang’s intentions. As the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) promised that sanctions would elicit “merciless punishment” last Friday, it clarified (speaking, it said, on behalf of the North Korean government) that “merciless punishment” meant little more than freezing inter-Korean relations and cooperation, as well as scrapping the North-South nonaggression agreement. (Those things came to pass this Tuesday anyway.) The same day, a statement from the foreign ministry larded with the usual fireworks—it blasted the “hostile policy” of the United States—also ended by claiming that the North’s policy to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula remains unchanged.
As the South Koreans have given vent to their anger since March, they’ve also made sure to offer the North a way out of this crisis. After all, Seoul can’t afford to get involved in a military standoff; it is hosting the G-20 summit this fall, as well as the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. So when South Korean President Lee Myung-bak laid out his responses to the sinking on Monday, he also demanded that Pyongyang “apologize and punish those responsible for the attack,” suggesting that Seoul is ready to resolve the issue if the North comes clean.
Pyongyang has already begun laying the groundwork for an apology. In May—before the North was officially blamed for sinking the Cheonan—the National Defense Commission dismissed KimIl-chol, its highest-ranking naval officer, due to his “old age.” Kim Il-chol is said to be in his late 70s, but the dismissal makes little sense; the commission is full of old-timers in their 70s and 80s. The removal of the naval commander could be Pyongyang’s first step toward admitting culpability, albeit tacitly, and claiming to have punished the responsible party.
In fact, we’ve been here before; an earlier crisis reveals the template Pyongyang is working from. In 1996, a North Korean submarine infiltrated South Korean territorial waters on an espionage mission before getting stranded. The 26 crew members swam ashore, resulting in a manhunt in which 13 South Korean soldiers were killed and 24 North Koreans were either killed or committed suicide (one was captured, the other was missing). The North initially refused to apologize, but later its foreign ministry and moderate elements in Pyongyang convinced the military hardliners to make an official apology three months after the incident. Kenneth Quinones, a former State Department negotiator and Korea expert, says that “similar dynamic” may be at play today.
There are still plenty of signs of North Korean hawkishness, such as the CPRK announcement that the nation would sever all ties with the South—but these only mirror similar statements from Seoul. Pyongyang says it will no longer deal with the South while Lee is in office, but, just as likely, that is a message directed to China, calling for Beijing to mediate and sort things out for them. First, says Quinones, “there’s a gradual trend toward greater moderation, away from escalating the rhetoric. Secondly it appears the North Koreans are reacting rather than trying to seize the upper hand. And third, they seem to be trying to keep some hope open for eventual negotiations.”
The remaining problem is the level of discipline and restraint among the Korean People’s Army, as it still remains unclear whether the torpedo attack was directly ordered by Kim Jong-il. During his visit to Beijing earlier in May, Kim reportedly told Chinese President Hu Jintao that the North had no involvement with the torpedo incident. Given the close relationship of the two countries, it’s less likely that Kim would have lied but entirely conceivable that the attack could have been ordered by someone lower in the chain of command without his knowledge. If that’s true, Seoul’s decision to blast anti-North propaganda cross the DMZ could be a problem, as a commander of the KPA threatened to shoot down the loudspeakers if the South turns them back on next month. If lower-ranking members of the KPA take matters into their own hands, they could thwart upper-echelon attempts to stanch the flame war. But as long as Kim can do so without looking weak, he seems to be serious about finding a way out.