Forensic evidence examined by three independent experts confirms what was suspected all along: the 1200-ton South Korean frigate Cheonan was sunk on March 26 by a North Korean torpedo while cruising in South Korean waters near their common maritime border, with the loss of Â 46 lives. Not only were traces of RDX (a military grade explosive whose chemical signature can identify its source) found in the salvaged wreak. Pieces of the torpedo itself have been recovered, including the propeller assembly and housing. The finger of guilt points heavily in Pyongyang’s direction. A secretive commando unit with direct links to Kim Jung-il, unit 586, is suspected of staging the attack using a mini-submarine as the launching platform (since such platforms would be harder to detect using standard anti-submarine detection methods). The fact that Mr. Kim awarded the commander of Unit 586 with his fourth generals’ star in a ceremony held shortly after the attack is seen by some analysts as proof of its involvement as well as Mr. Kim’s direct authorisation of the attack.
The question is why would the North Koreans do such a thing? Admittedly, they have a track record of unprovoked attacks on South Korean targets, including a 1967 attack on a South Korean navy vessel that killed 39 sailors, a 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 118 people, an attempted assassination of the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma in 1983, plus a series of bloody naval skirmishes dating back to 1999, including an incident last year when a North Korean gunboat was heavily damaged, with loss of life, in a confrontation with South Korean naval forces. Some argue that the torpedoing was simply an act of revenge over this last incident, but it appears that there is much more at play than immediately meets the eye.
The North Korean torpedo attack is alarming because the two Koreas technically remain in a state of war. The 1953 armistice is not a peace treaty, so a state of war continues to exist between the two countries in spite of the episodic thawing in relations between them. That serves as both the justification for the attack as well as a major source of concern. Usually a cross-border raid into a sovereign nation’s territorial waters during peace time that results in an unprovoked attack on a military vessel would be construed as an an act of war deserving of commensurate, if not overwhelming response. But since the two countries are already in a state of war, each is free to pursue aggression as it sees fit. That has resulted in a (mostly one-sided) low intensity conflict between the two states for the last 57 years, and is why US forces are stationed in and around the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that constitutes their common land border (US troops in the DMZ serve as a “trip wire” in which an attack on them will trigger the US security guarantee for the South Koreans, meaning direct US military involvement in the response). Â Thus the North Korean torpedo attack is just a continuation of an on-going limited war rather than an outright declaration of war. Even so, it is an outrageous provocation and therefore runs the risk of escalating into something bigger.
South Korean public outrage demands blood in revenge, yet in practice South Korea has few options at its disposal. North Korea has already declared, with its usual bluster, that any military response will be met with “all-out war.” Although North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike in spite of its efforts to build an effective nuclear arsenal, it does have ample capability to launch significant missile attacks on Seoul and other parts of South Korea as well as beyond (to include Japan and US bases in Okinawa and the Western Pacific). It also has a Chinese security guarantee to match the American compact with its southern neighbour. That means that a South Korean military response runs the risk of escalation into high intensity conflict that could lead to both security guarantees being invoked, thereby forcing a US-China confrontation. It is not in either power’s interests to see this happen, so pressure is on South Korea to not call North Korea’s bluff and retaliate in kind. Yet, most analysts agree that no response will only embolden the North Koreans and result in further incidents with a greater potential for escalation. Hounded by this dilemma, South Korea has so far limited its response to calling for UN Security Council condemnation of the attack, something that so far has not occurred.
Shadow warriors and covert operations specialists point out that more discrete means of retaliation are available that can make the South Koreans’ point just as effectively. All that is needed is patience and planning in the execution of a discrete mission against a select target. But even this approach needs to factor in the motivations of the North Korean regime in staging the attack, because understanding of its rationale can better inform the response not only of South Korea, but of its allies and the larger international community as well.
It appears that the attack was staged as a result of divisions within the North Korean hierarchy over the issue of leadership succession. It was more than just an “unfortunate incident” resultant from miscommunication or misreading of intent. It is clear that Kim Jung-il is on his last legs after a series of strokes and other ailments. Thus the jockeying for position as heir to the Kim throne is now reaching fever pitch, with hard-liners and soft-liners attempting to out-maneuver each other in the run-up to his death (hard-liners are regime defenders, soft-liners are regime reformers). Some intelligence analysts believe that Mr. Kim authorised the attack in order to to shore up hard-line support for his son, Kim Jong-un. The younger Kim has no power base outside of his father’s closest associates. He has no administrative or military command experience as far as is known. This leaves him vulnerable to the machinations of veteran Communist (i.e., formally named the Workers) Party and military authorities whom may have leadership ambitions of their own. Some of these heavyweights may accept a power-sharing arrangement where the Kim dynastic line is continued more or less along the lines presently operative. Others may prefer that the younger Mr. Kim serve as a figurehead while real power is distributed among a broader array of bureaucratic cadres, thereby decentralising policy-making authority (and power) in a slow process of regime reform. Still others may prefer to dispense with the Kims entirely and assume power directly, in coalition or as part of a small cadre, either as part of a reformist or retrenchment project. All of these factions are hard-line in the views of the world, which means that whatever happens democracy and major liberalisation of the regime will not be on the menu.
On the other hand, there are soft-line factions with the DPRK regime. These are drawn from elements in the Communist party and civilian bureaucracy who have had to wrestle with the deterioration of North Korea’s infrastructure, living standards and health during the last twenty years. These people are well aware that North Korea is an economic basket case that feeds and arms its military at the expense of its people, who have been subject to famine, starvation, an array of diseases, homelessness and unemployment as they eke out what for all purposes is a Dickensian existence. It is these people who know that there are two North Koreas, one for the elites and one for the masses (as a Stalinist version of the “dual society” thesis that has been used to explain comparative underdevelopment), and it is these people who are most acutely aware of how far behind North Korea has fallen behind its ethnic kin to the South under the vainglorious and rigid Kim dictatorship. It is these people who understand that Kim Jung-il’s death provides an opportunity to open up the regime, if not immediately on the political front, then certainly on the economic front. Â After all, even after the Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese abandoned communism as the major organising tenet of society, the DPRK dinosaurs cling to it as an insurance policy against threats to their rule. Hence the soft-liners are working to persuade leadership contenders that their support depends on a major opening of the regime, even if still under one party authoritarian aegis. In fact, for the soft-liners, their continued support for one party rule is contingent on economic liberalisation.
That is why the torpedo attack was carried out. It had to do with internal dynamics in the Kim regime rather than the war with South Korea itself, which merely served as an excuse (by hard-liners) to Â launch the attack. A tried and true authoritarian method of shoring up elite unity and public support is to stage a militaristic diversion that rallies the public along nationalistic grounds (some might argue that this happens in democratic regimes as well–witness, say, the US and UK attack on Iraq in 2003). The torpedo attack was a sucker ploy designed to incite a South Korean response that would help consolidate the position of one of the North Korean leadership factions. But therein lies the rub, because history also shows that diversionary attacks staged by dictatorships often end in defeat and regime collapse, either immediately or in time. The Greek colonel’s regime collapsed after its defeat in the 1973 Cyprus War, a war that it started at a time when it was facing rising domestic discontent and increased disunity within the armed ranks. The Argentine junta collapsed in 1982 after its defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands campaign, a war that it also started in order to divert public attention from pressing economic problems at a time when, again, political in-fighting amongst military and civilian elites was increasing. The fall of Saddam Hussein had its origins in his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and even if eventual rather than immediate, the end of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime was predictable from that point on.
To this can be added the problem of succession in authoritarian regimes. It is considered the Achilles Heel of authoritarianism, especially in heavily personalised, dynastic or military-dominated regimes (North Korea is all three). Because power is so tightly centralised in such regimes, even where institutionalised under one party aegis, the benefits of leadership are virtually unfettered and unlimited. There are little or no checks and balances or separation of powers in such regimes, so the material and political rewards of leadership are astronomical when compared with even bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as Singapore or (now) the PRC. Hence the stakes of the succession game in places like North Korea are extremely high for all contenders, and the competition for leadership succession gets, to put it mildly, quite rough.
All of which is to say that the response to the North Korean attack should be subtle rather than overt. Devoid of a militaristic opportunity to engage in jingoistic stirring of popular fervor, the declining Kim regime will be forced to turn back inwards as the leadership succession issue gets more factionalised and hostile. That will likely lead to more attempts to use the military diversion option, perhaps as a desperate last resort by a losing faction in the internecine battles over leadership in the post Kim Jung-il era. But it is only a matter of time before the DPRK regime enters into terminal crisis, which is why it is best to not answer this latest provocation with force. That time may well come, but first the nature and course of the North Korean leadership succession must become apparent.
In the meantime, then, perhaps it is best for the South Koreans to move in shadows rather than in light when countering North Korean aggression.