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.
A correction, Pablo – it is not technically nor substantively correct to speak of a ‘communist party’ in North Korea. The party’s offocial name is the ‘Worker’s Party of Korea’, and its ideology has moved significantly away from Soviet and Maoist style communism (let alone communism as laid down by Marx) to the point of being something entirely different.
But to address your overall point, I think it’s pretty unlikely that South Korea will respond with any military offensive – it’s more likely to roll back some of the areas of economic collaboration between the two Koreas that have been instituted over the past 15 years or so.
Thanks Hugh, I stand corrected and made reference to that in the post. I am not sure, however, that one-party rule in the DPRK is something “entirely different” so much as a pathological mutation of the Stalinist model.
I agree with the view that an SK economic roll-back is likely, which might help bring to a head the contradictions I mentioned in the post. As I alluded to before, sometimes a scalpel is better than a hammer in situations such this.
I’m not convinced the North Koreans could expect any serious support from China if things turn into a fight involving the US or Japan. I realise that was really a theoretical point as (and I agree) South Korea is unlikely to come out with a full-blown military offensive anyway, but all the same, China’s peaceful rise would surely take strategic precedent over whatever agreement it has with the DPRK.
It will be interesting to see how the ROK government handles internal pressures to act more aggressively. Presumably “moving in the shadows” will not satisfy the general public’s outrage.
Tom: Agreed. Hence the SK dilemma. The issue is how to sell the ROK public response to the SK public while playing in the shadows.
Most of what you say was common parlance in Seoul before this event. You might add the following elements:
(1) Lee Myung-bak’s election victory marks a swing back to the right after the Kim-Noh period. The South Korean right is traditionally hard line against North Korea, whereas Kim and Noh attempted conciliation. I didn’t get the impression while I was there that Myung-bak has a hard on for conflict with North Korea, but some of his supporters do. This leads me on to the second point.
(2) North Korea’s diplomacy often seems weird because the North Korean elites really don’t know that much about foreigners. I’m willing to bet that they simply have little idea of what is going on. Any intelligence they do get is going to go through the institutional mill of the DPRK military and that is its own snakepit of interests.
(3) I didn’t see you mention the greatest deterrent that the DPRK has. Yes, they can do a lot of damage to Seoul if they so choose, but far worse damage could be done without firing a shot. If the DPRK collapses, there will be a couple of million refugees heading south in short order. Those who survive the minefields will turn up in Seoul in a couple of days. There is absolutely no way that the ROK can absorb the population of the DPRK without creating a massive and sustained economic crisis, and it would be politically impossible for the south to refuse northern citizens reunification, just as the West Germans couldn’t refuse the East Germans. AFAIK that is why the South gives economic aid to the North. They are shit scared of having to find something to do with 20 million impoverished North Koreans. As I said above, the North doesn’t know much, but it knows this.
The last is the most important. Everyone in the ROK knows this, which is why talk of retaliation is likely to remain talk.
Interesting, both Pablo & Ag. I am curious as to your views on the influence of China on the transition to new leadership. Like Russia they will wish to continue to dominate their near abroad and whilst they might get some satisfaction from the short term (say two decades) disruption that North Korean breakdown would wreak on South Korea they would certainly be more concerned about the guarantee of losing a client state as it was subsumed into South Korea.
I’d argue that North Korea’s state ideology as practiced (as opposed to proclaimed) owes as much to Japanese Nationalist Imperialism as it does to Soviet Stalinism (and accompanying Imperialism), but I guess it’s a matter on which reasonable people might disagree.
While rollback is probably the most sensible course, particularly when dealing with the demand for action on the part of the South Korean public and President Lee’s own supporters particularly, it does mean that any future economic engagement, presumably after a period of relatively sedate relations, will be harder to establish, since the North Koreans will quite rightly say ‘oh, this is all very well, but it will all vanish the moment we do something you don’t like’.
The questions are
1. how North Korea adopts the arrangement within China – whereby hardline nationalist military interests are appeased while the party otherwise has focus on the political economy – economic power underpins growing military capacity.
That is the party maintains popularity via both nationalism (military interest) and economic success.
2. whether China supports any such arrangement developing within Norh Korea.
While this probably should occur via South Korean aid – economic co-operation, this is not consistent with a militant nationalism in the north.
In China’s case the dynamic is easier, they trade with the world and their nationalism is apparently contained within the one China policy (China’s projection of power in relation to its economic supply line security policy could be problematic in times of international supply pressures).
Whereas for North Korea, any co-operation with the South would be with the nation which threatens its own nationalism and would dominate any union (greater population and wealth).
But what exactly is China’s real policy – they chose not to intervene to prevent the north beconming a nuclear power. They did not prevent the north exporting military technology. China is advantaged by its ability to secure resources from the Moslem Middle East/Iran. It is advantaged by a port on the African side of India (realised via Kashmir keeping the sub-continent divided). To what extent is the north a proxy – for testing Obama (Iran sanctions etc)?
It strikes me that the Chinese would prefer to have NK open up economically but keep its military alliance under ongoing one party rule. NK is a drain on China and so economic revitalisation, using South Korean-led capital, would suit Chinese interests. But they would also want to maintain NK as a buffer zone on the southern flank, so ongoing military and political conservativism would be preferred over a pro-Western tilt.
Ag.: I am not sure that a mass migration from North to South would eventuate or be allowed to happen. The DMZ is a formidable land barrier designed to stop massed armoured assaults. People may try to get through the mine fields and over the wire and walls, but I have no doubts that SK troops would open fire on them if ordered to do so. The means that any mass flows would be by sea, and that too will encounter a naval picket line not averse to shooting. SK has to worry about infiltrators and saboteurs amongst the migrants, which will provide the justification for a hard line. Meanwhile the northern border is virtually open and lightly defended, which when coupled with NK population fears of SK and the West due to years of brainwashing and the difficulties in crossing mentioned above, would make the northern exit more attractive. Of course China would not like that, so it returns us to the fact that no one except the NK leadership has an interest in seeing this incident escalate. My understanding is that the PRC has given tacit agreement to the SK economic roll-back and reaffirmed its support for existing UN sanctions, so perhaps it is trying to send a message to its client that regardless of the internal machinations, NK upsets the regional apple cart at its own peril.
South Koreans firing on unarmed North Korean civilians???
No chance of that happening in a structured way. It would bring down the South Korean government for soldiers to fire on their ethnic kin.
Equally for American soldiers the political consequences would be unthinkable.
A continued one party state looks most likely. The faction that China supports is the one most likely to gain control when Kim dies. Is that the hardliners or the moderates?
I seriously doubt that this would happen. Firstly, the South would not be able to withstand the diplomatic pressure to aid the refugees. Secondly, it’s hard to conceive of Koreans abandoning other Koreans. They just aren’t that sort of people. They aren’t westerners. Frankly, the kind of mercenary western attitude just doesn’t hold much sway with Koreans. The lost face from such an enterprise would be too great. Fourthly, unification has been the long term stance of both Koreas, and they won’t be able to back out of it. They have mouthed off for 60 years about it, and even though they don’t want it anymore, they can’t back out.
This will certainly be true for some people. But no matter what happens, South Korea will end up owning North Korea. Anything else is inconceivable. The South Koreans might not want to, but they will have to or lose face. North Koreans are not Chinese. In the end North Koreans are Koreans, and that is why most will be citizens of a united Korea.
Fine up to a point. China needs North Korea more than North Korea needs China. China needs North Korea as a buffer state between it and the US military presence in the South. The North Koreans are in the position to make all sorts of unreasonable demands because its neighbours would rather it stays there.
Ag – OMG – We agree ;^)
So Ag you think ‘Westerners’ would watch soldiers fire on civilians en masse without any criticism of the government responsible for those soldiers? Interesting.
Re: South Korea owning North Korea, one fear that I would have if I were a South Korean nationalist is that a collapse of the North Korean regime might involve some other regional power snapping up control of the North Korean economy at a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated bargain basement price – China is the obvious candidate, but the USA or Japan would probably leap in too if given half a chance, as would (more remotely) Russia.
No. I think westerners would be more likely to refuse reunification for economic reasons. We don’t have as strong a conception of duty to our own people as the Koreans have. Their moral culture is quite different to ours in many respects. Perhaps the best analogue among westerners would be the attitude of Israel to diaspora Jews, but even that is not the same.
Another reason it would be unlikely to happen is that the right wing authoritarian sectors of Korean society (those who still think that the military dictatorship was right, and there are quite a lot of them), who would be the ones most likely to accept atrocities on the evidence of past behaviour, are mostly pro-unification.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I think people are giving to much credit to the North Koreans. My personal view is this sinking is a direct retaliation for the humiliation the North Korean navy suffered in the November 2009 Naval skirmish with the South. From what I’ve read, the most likely culprit is a mini-submarine, of which DPRK is said to possess around 60. That being the case, the limited combat capabilities of these types of vessels indicates to me the DPRK Navy has probably been trying to get a submarine into a position to torpedo a ROK ship since the November 2009 skirmish.
Although I do not wish to add to the speculative digression about Korean ethnic affinity being an impediment to SK attempting to prevent a mass migration scenario, let me say that I believe that the claims to some form of superior Korean ethno-cultural unity are exaggerated and fail to take into account the hard realities of the recent armed history between the two sides. Although NK is more prone to doing so (as recently as last year), there are several instances of SK troops firing on non-military vessels and individuals attempting to cross the border. Moreover, the SK command and control structure, plus a military-corporate (and social) culture of rigid hierarchy, means that subordinate personnel will be hard pressed to refuse an order to fire from higher up in the chain of command. It is simply not in their general and military socialisation to do so.
Beyond that, the idea that the SK population uniformly views the NK population as “brothers” overstates the case. Years of widening income gaps and cultural preferences, coupled with political dogma, have driven a wedge into Korean ethnic solidarity. Much in the way Singaporean Chinese look down on the mainland counterparts as uncouth and uncivilised, many South Koreans view their northern brethren with suspicion, if not disdain. That serves to make it easier to paint NK migrants as a subversive “other” that poses both a short and long-term threat to the SK way of life. All of that argues in favour of an aggressive SK response to the “threat” of mass migration in the event of a DPRK collapse.
Phil S. and Ag: How about this for a KP logo? “Kiwipolitico: bridging ideological difference via informed debate.”
Well, maybe not quite…
Here is a question for you Pablo: The ROK is again going to set up loudspeakers to bombard the North wih propaganda. The DPRK has said they’ll use artillery to stop this. Now, if this were to spiral into war, what do you think the NZ reaction would be, and what do you think it should be?
Dang, Tom, now we are really going off-post!
I think that the the SK reaction is both childish and counter-productive. As I said before, there are other subtle and overt ways of showing displeasure over the unprovoked attack on its ship.
Should things hit the fan I am not of the view that NZ has a dog in the fight. Although it was on the US side in the Korean War, it now has been kissing up to Asian powers for more than a decade and, more importantly, economically depends more on Asia, especially China, than it does its traditional allies (other than OZ and in spite of Key’s attempts to brown nose the US). So a NZ pronouncement one way or the other could backfire although every Asian state but China sees NK as run by nutbars.
Thus, the best NZ stance is to urge China and the US, as well as the principals, to seek a diplomatic solution or at least a stalemate, After all, as I mentioned in the post, time is on the side of SK given NKs leadership succession issues and it is China that has the most vested foreign interest in seeing NK evolve out of its condition as a pariah state into something that is both a safe yet sane ally.
There is the connection to the UN involvement in the collective security of SK in the 1950’s and the appointment of a South Korean to head the UN. So there is a UN connection to the cease-fire agreement.
In many ways the action of NK and the capacity of China to protect them from any UN response by SC veto, speaks back to the Iran issue – as I mentioned earlier.
Also I supsect, even if China will never make this public, that their nationalist military policy is to protect NK until Taiwan is again part of one China. That is connect the unification of China on their terms to any support for the unification of Korea. Thus their tacit enabling of NK’s nuclear blackmail policy to extract western aid.
How sure are you of your intel on this one Pablo?
It seems the Swedes weren’t too keen on the inquiry’s outcome:
“The U.S., Britain and Australia – all of which helped in the investigation – are all prepared to back up the findings. Only Sweden, which also sent investigators, is a reluctant partner in blaming the North Koreans.
Here is a picture of the props on the sunken vessel after recovery:
The torpedo that allegedly sunk it:
Taking into account the difference in metals and bearing in mind that the ship props had been immersed for longer (since the last haulout), the torpedo corrosion/encrustation appears rather too advanced on the torpedo.
I am with the Swedes here.
As for the political motives, doesn’t the GNP need a boost? In a recent poll on President Lee Myung-bak and the GNP, 25.4 percent of the population of South Korea recently answered “good” and 67.3 percent “bad”
For any North Korean figure to capitalize, wouldn’t they need to acknowledge responsibility?
U.S. desires regarding Okinawa could also get a boost from characterizing what may have been a mishap with an old mine (many of which are known to infest the area) as an attack.
I wouldn’t mind betting this story might be quietly retracted after the SK elections. It is interesting to note that, immediately following the sinking, an attack was ruled out by the ROK Naval and intelligence brass while the GNP pollies were proclaiming it.
From Huffington Post:
“TOKYO â€” Washington and Tokyo agreed Friday to keep a contentious U.S. Marine base in Okinawa, with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama highlighting the importance of the Japanese-American security alliance amid rising tension on the nearby Korean peninsula. “I am sincerely sorry for not being able to keep my word, and what is more, having hurt Okinawans in the end,” he said. “In Asia, there still remain unstable and uncertain factors, including the sinking of a South Korean warship by North Korea,” he said.
South Korean religious leaders question conclusions of the Cheonan sinking investigation
Inspector breaks ranks:
Russian experts who carried out a probe into the South Korean warship sinking refused to put the blame on North Korea, military sources said on Tuesday.
A team of four submarine and torpedo experts from the Russian Navy returned to Moscow on Monday after making an independent assessment of the March 26 sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, in which 46 sailors were killed.
A Russian Navy source said the experts had not found convincing evidence of North Korea’s involvement.
â€œAfter examining the available evidence and the ship wreckage Russian experts came to the conclusion that a number of arguments produced by the international investigation in favour of the DPRK’s [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] involvement in the corvette sinking were not weighty enough,â€ a Russian Navy source told the Interfax-AVN news wire on Tuesday on condition of anonymity. Russia’s Armed Forces Chief of Staff Nikolai Makarov said only that the Russian Foreign Ministry would make an official statement on the issue after the experts prepared their report.
Joseph, don’t you have a blog of your own?
Joseph: It is clear that we are not going to agree on who sunk the boat, but what is your point? That the South Korean govt lied so that it could gain electoral advantage in last month’s elections? If so, that theory proved wrong since the govt lost votes when compared to the previous election. Do you mean to imply that the independent experts are liars too? Or that the SK govt wants war? Or that the US is manipulating things with an eye to war? Or that NK is a responsible global citizen and the righteously aggrieved party in this case?
You also conveniently forget that NK has a long history of doing such things (including an incident in the past few days where a NK border guard shot dead 4 unarmed Chinese civilians), and that it would have the motivation to repeat a provocation such as the sinking of the Cheonan. So again, what is your point other than to be, as usual, obtusely contrarian?
Whatever the case, the post was about NK motivations, not about the sinking per se. Next time try to stay on topic.
Am I to understand that whether or not NK sank the ship is not relevant to an essay about the motivations that NK had for sinking the ship?
Something about that doesn’t seem quite right.
Look guys, if you don’t want any opinions or data contrary to your own on this blog, just say so.
Contrary opinions and data are fine. But you’d made your point already, and the point was not to litigate whether of not the DPRK did the sinking. The general consensus is they did; your repeated highlighting of the various minority reports to the contrary is a worthy project, but not as regards the post.
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