Given the brazenness of North Korea’s attack on a South Korean naval vessel, President Lee Myung-bak’s tough response is entirely understandable. So are Washington’s efforts to show solidarity with an ally linked by a mutual security treaty dating back to the Korean War and host to nearly 30,000 American troops.
But as Washington and Seoul plot their next steps, they are in danger of painting themselves into a corner, with a heightened prospect of more firefights with North Korea and no clear exit strategy to defuse the crisis before it becomes unmanageable.
The idea that a new round of sanctions or muscle-flexing will somehow compel North Korea to back down is utterly unrealistic.
Public anger in South Korea has been intense since the publication of a report last week blaming North Korea for the sinking of a southern naval vessel in March that left 46 dead. In response, President Lee has announced an end to most North-South economic ties, a blockade of North Korean shipping through South Korean waters, a resumption of anti-North Korean propaganda broadcasts along the Demilitarized Zone, plans for joint U.S.-South Korean anti-submarine training exercises, and calls for the U.N. Security Council to punish Pyongyang.
Lee, for legitimate reasons, needs to show both at home and abroad that he can’t be bullied by Kim Jong-Il. Still, several of the measures he has outlined carry real risks, with little evidence they would accomplish very much. Pyongyang has already threatened to fire artillery shells at transmitters along the DMZ if broadcasts are resumed. A South Korean move to intercept North Korean merchant ships could easily lead to another naval clash, as could any joint action targeting North Korean submarines. By taking these steps, Seoul has in effect ceded all the initiative to Kim, who now has the power to decide when, where, and how the next round of confrontation will occur. (Indeed, on Monday night, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that Kim put his military on combat alert.)
In addition, there is little evidence to suggest that sanctions and coercion work with the North Koreans. A careful look at patterns of North Korean behavior over the past two decades shows that Pyongyang’s response when pushed is almost always to push back harder. Examples include North Korea ending a nuclear freeze and restarting operations at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in late 2002 after the Bush administration abandoned the Agreed Framework deal negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994; staging a nuclear test in 2006 following the Bush administration’s imposition of financial sanctions aimed at North Korean accounts at a bank in the former Portuguese territory of Macau; and responding to U.N. condemnation of missile tests staged in the spring of 2009 by conducting a second nuclear test in May of last year.
The most plausible explanation of the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan fits this pattern. The incident occurred after the conservative Lee, upon taking office in 2008, repudiated an accord signed by his liberal predecessor Roh Moo-hyun in October 2007 aimed at creating a “joint fishing zone” and establishing military confidence-building measures in the disputed waters off the western coast of Korea. A series of tense naval encounters eventually led to a clash last November in which the South Korean navy set a North Korean ship on fire and killed at least one of its sailors.
Soon after, Kim visited a naval base and ordered the navy to “raise heroes for do-or-die squads at sea.” The attack in March on the Cheonan, in all likelihood, was North Korea settling the score.
Some in Seoul and Washington appear to believe that North Korea has been so weakened by recent economic woes, internal discontent, and maneuvering over the succession to Kim that heightened pressure now could well bring the regime to its knees. But Kim appears very much in control and mostly recovered from the stroke he suffered in 2008; North Korea’s economy has been growing for a decade; and there is no indication that the country’s internal problems have weakened the authority of the army or ruling party. In short, predicting the near-term collapse of the regime is largely an exercise in wishful thinking.
Viewed in this context, the idea that a new round of sanctions or muscle-flexing will somehow compel North Korea to back down is utterly unrealistic. Instead, in the current heated atmosphere, the danger is that new sanctions or another incident could trigger a wider escalation, or lead Pyongyang to stage new missile tests, another nuclear test, or manufacture more weapons-grade plutonium to bolster its nuclear arsenal.
This is especially true because, as Washington and Seoul have put forward their calls to punish North Korea, neither has spelled out a realistic path for Pyongyang to extricate itself from the mess it has created.
Eventually, the only way to break this dangerous cycle of escalation is to talk to North Korea—something that both the U.S. and South Korea have, for now, ruled out. For its part, Pyongyang hasn’t helped matters with its threats and fire-breathing rhetoric. One interesting signal, however, has come from North Korea’s proposal to send a team to review last week’s report on the sinking of the Cheonan. South Korea has already rejected the idea. But, if perhaps done under the auspices of the U.N., it might lay the groundwork for Pyongyang to back away from its strident denials, particularly if coupled with some reference to the naval clash of last November.
Otherwise, China offers the only real hope of a renewed push for negotiations. The clear evidence that North Korea was responsible for the attack has created a dilemma for Beijing, which has sought to balance a close political and economic relationship with Pyongyang and thriving ties to South Korea, while acting as a mediator in trying to keep tensions on the peninsula under control. Now, however, Washington and Seoul are pressing China to take a stand, with Secretary of State Clinton making the case directly to Chinese leaders this week. So far, the Chinese have remained cautious, urging all parties to “exercise restraint.” But some observers believe that Beijing might offer to support a U.N. condemnation of North Korea—though only if the U.S. and South Korea agree to resume diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang.
“If we could get a rhetorical rebuke at the U.N.,” noted one former American official with considerable experience negotiating with the North Koreans, “and then move to sensible, sustained engagement on real problems,” that might help to reduce tensions. The former official noted, “North Korea has a history of moving very quickly from crisis to dialogue, but the onus is on the U.S. to indicate a willingness to negotiate.”
Among the topics in such negotiations could be how to manage the disputed waters of the West Sea. And there is a precedent.
“This is not virgin territory,” observed one veteran North Korea analyst. “There is an accord [the 2007 North-South deal] in the trash cans in the South Korean presidential palace.”
In the current heated climate, however, it will take courage to talk with a regime as odious as North Korea’s. If tensions escalate even further before Washington and Seoul are forced to confront need for dialogue, the conflict may spiral out of control.
Mike Chinoy has visited North Korea 14 times and is author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. He is a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California and vice president of NewsCertified Exchange, a media training company.