May 20, 2010 | Backgrounder on North Korea
Abstract: The evidence is clear: North Korea is responsible for the torpedo attack that sank the South Korean naval frigate Cheonan. Now that North Korea’s culpability for this heinous act of aggression has been proven, South Korea and the United States must respond resolutely by imposing a comprehensive package of unilateral and multilateral actions. These sanctions should include severing inter-Korean economic relations, augmenting U.S.–South Korean naval forces and detection capabilities in the West Sea, and insisting that the U.N. Security Council approve a resolution condemning and punishing North Korea.
A multilateral investigative team has concluded that the South Korean naval frigate Cheonan sank as a result of a North Korean torpedo attack. According to the team’s report, strong forensic evidence conclusively “points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation.” The team was composed of experts from South Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Sweden.
Now that North Korea’s culpability for this heinous act of aggression has been proven, South Korea and the United States must respond resolutely by imposing a comprehensive package of unilateral and multilateral actions. These sanctions should include severing inter-Korean economic relations, augmenting U.S.–South Korean naval forces and detection capabilities in the West Sea, and insisting that the U.N. Security Council approve a resolution condemning and punishing North Korea.
Results of the Investigation
The Joint Civilian–Military Investigation Group concluded that the Cheonan sank because of a strong underwater explosion generated by the detonation of a homing torpedo below the ship. Technical analysis of propulsion parts—including a propulsion motor with propellers and a steering section collected from the site of the sinking—provided the forensic evidence necessary to assign culpability: The torpedo belonged to North Korea.
Furthermore, Korean characters found inside the propulsion section were consistent with the marking of a previously obtained CHT-02D North Korean torpedo. That torpedo has an explosive warhead consistent with the acoustic signature of the explosion that sank the Cheonan.
Several small North Korean submarines were confirmed to have departed their home base prior to the Cheonan attack and returned after the attack. All submarines from neighboring countries were confirmed to have been either in or near their respective home bases at the time of the incident.
Further Evidence of North Korean Involvement
Additional evidence tends to confirm the accuracy of the Joint Civilian–Military Investigation Group’s conclusions.
North Korean Motives
Most likely, Pyongyang’s attack on the Cheonan was retaliation for North Korea’s defeat in a November 2009 naval clash with South Korea. In that dispute, a North Korean ship was heavily damaged and its crew likely suffered casualties. The Cheonan attack and previous naval clashes took place near a disputed maritime boundary in the West Sea. During the past two years, North Korea has proclaimed that it would adhere to its own interpretation of the military demarcation line, escalated its claim to sovereignty of South Korean waters, increased naval artillery training and augmented ammunition reserves of coastal artillery units in the region, and abrogated the armistice ending the Korean War.
The Cheonan attack was also motivated by Pyongyang’s desire to increase tensions on the peninsula—a negotiating tactic favored by North Korea. Pyongyang has historically seen raising tensions as an effective means of securing negotiating leverage and forcing concessions from its opponents. North Korea typically alternates provocative actions with seemingly conciliatory behavior in order to gain the diplomatic initiative and dictate the negotiating agenda. Given that last year’s long-range missile and nuclear tests did not achieve North Korean objectives, Pyongyang may have felt obligated to up the ante through a high-risk provocative act, such as sinking the Cheonan.
By attacking the Cheonan, Kim Jong-il was likely hoping to force President Lee Myung-bak to soften his principled engagement policy toward North Korea as well as to prompt the U.N. to reduce the sanctions that have had a strong impact on North Korea’s economy. Such a response would hardly be unprecedented; Pyongyang has often lashed out when it felt weak or was perceived as weak by opponents in what South Koreans refer to as the “barking of a wounded dog.”
Despite the audacity of attacking a South Korean ship, Kim Jong-il would have been confident that neither South Korea nor the U.S. would retaliate militarily. Both countries have suffered several North Korean attacks that led to loss of life, but neither has retaliated. Nor was Pyongyang punished when it brazenly violated the U.S. redline against nuclear proliferation when it helped to build a covert nuclear reactor in Syria.
Seoul Angry, But Not Angry Enough to Attack
After disclosing evidence of North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan, Seoul will feel compelled to respond with punitive measures. However, South Korea will not conduct a military attack. The populace is angry, but not angry enough to advocate military strikes against North Korea since such an attack could escalate into all-out war and the subsequent collapse of the North Korean regime.
War and its attendant consequences would jeopardize Seoul’s two highest priorities: ensuring economic recovery and hosting the G-20 summit. Even a series of tactical-level inter-Korean clashes could spook investors and have a dramatic impact on the South Korean bourse and economy. The G-20 summit is seen as another manifestation of South Korea’s recognition as an important international nation, similar to the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
President Lee Myung-bak may have intended his April meeting with former Presidents Kim Young-sam and Chun Doo-hwan to provide political cover for not responding militarily. Kim and Chun were conservative presidents who talked tough about North Korea but did not respond to North Korean attacks during their administrations. As a result, there is less pressure on President Lee to respond with military force.
China Remains the Weak Link in Campaign to Punish Pyongyang
Fearful that a resolute response could trigger North Korean instability or even collapse, thereby replacing a buffer state on its border with a powerful reunified Korea, Beijing will react with its customary call for caution and restraint. In fact, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie has already commented that “even when the final result [of the investigation] is out, it is necessary to deal with it in a cool-headed and prudent way for the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
In order to prop up Pyongyang, China is willing to hinder the effectiveness of international sanctions by providing economic benefits to North Korea outside of the conditionality of the Six-Party Talks. By not fully implementing sanctions and by offering alternative sources of revenue, Beijing reduces the likelihood that North Korea will return to the Six-Party Talks. After all, why would Pyongyang seek the conditional benefits offered as inducements in the nuclear negotiations when it can receive the same benefits directly from China?
However, China can be moved beyond its comfort zone, albeit grudgingly and not as far as Washington would prefer. For instance, Beijing acquiesced to U.S. pressure to impose sanctions on North Korea after the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests. A blatant North Korean provocation—such as the sinking of the Cheonan—could provide South Korea and the U.S. with sufficient leverage to get Beijing to agree to some stronger measures against North Korea. Washington and Seoul should press Beijing strongly in the U.N. Security Council to impose a suitable punishment on North Korea.
What Needs to Be Done
Seoul and Washington should punish North Korea by imposing a comprehensive package of unilateral and multilateral actions.
Specifically, South Korea should:
For its part, the U.S. has its own role to play and should:
Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop
It is likely that the Cheonan sinking is not a singular event but rather the beginning of a North Korean campaign to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula. A greater willingness to engage in high-risk behavior could be the result either of North Korea’s growing confidence due to its nuclear weapons status or, conversely, its growing desperation resulting from the increasing impact of international sanctions on its economy.
It can be expected that North Korea will react strongly to any international effort to punish it for the Cheonan attack. Pyongyang could even be looking for a strong international response to the Cheonan sinking in order to justify additional belligerent behavior. Similarly, North Korea may have planned on triggering a U.N. response to its April 2009 long-range missile test in order to justify its nuclear test the following month. If that is the case, North Korea will engage in additional provocative behavior, particularly in the run-up to Seoul’s hosting of the G-20 summit in November.
Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Heo Nam-chin, “Wait for the Facts, but Be Prepared,” Joongang Ilbo, April 17, 2010, at http://joongangdaily.joins.com/article/view.asp?aid=2919286 (May 19, 2010).
Lee Sung Jin, “Cheonan Sinking Rumor Proudly Circulating in North Korea,” Daily NK, April 27, 2010, at http://www.dailynk.com/english/read.php?cataId=nk01500&num=6286 (May 19, 2010).
“N.Korea’s Madness Must Be Stopped,” Chosun Ilbo, April 27, 2010, at http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2010/04/27/2010042701335.html (May 19, 2010).
U.S., South Korean, and Japanese officials have privately commented to the author of this paper that intelligence data indicate that sanctions are having a deleterious financial impact on the Kim regime.
The most notable examples are the 1968 attack on the presidential residence by a North Korean commando team in a failed assassination attempt; the 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo and imprisonment and torture of U.S. crew members; the 1976 ax murder of two U.S. soldiers; the 1983 bombing in Burma, killing 21 South Koreans in a failed presidential assassination attempt; the 1987 blowing up of a Korean airliner, killing 115 people; and the September 1996 grounding of a North Korean submarine in South Korea in which 10 South Koreans were killed by fleeing special forces members.
“Chinese Defense Minister Urges Caution over Cheonan Sinking,” Chosun Ilbo, May 14, 2010, at http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2010/05/14/2010051400771.html (May 19, 2010).
Kim So-hyun, “Seoul May Cut Trade with N. Korea,” Korea Herald, April 25, 2010, at http://www.koreaherald.com/national/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20100425000256 (May 19, 2010).
In July 2008, a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist at the Kumgangsan tourist venture. South Korea terminated all tours after Pyongyang refused to allow an investigation. To compensate for the lost revenue, North Korea seized all South Korean assets.
Command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Kim So-hyun, “Kim Visits Army Unit Spying on S. Korea,” Korea Herald, April 27, 2010, at http://www.koreaherald.com/national/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20100427000663 (May 19, 2010).