So, both Washington and Seoul are convinced that based on overwhelming evidence a North Korean torpedo is responsible for the sinking of South Korean ship Cheonan. This has to be the toughest challenge yet to maintaining the pale imitation of stability in Northeast Asia.
The sinking of the said ship, which killed fourty-six South Korean sailors, was a serious act of agression that violated not just the Armistice but the United Nations Charter as well. Indeed, it should have been taken by South Korea as an act of war that required full military retaliation. The painful reality for Seoul, however, is that military option is a luxury it can ill afford. President Lee Myung-bak knows this, which is why his response to the crisis was very prudent: He did not immediately put the blame on the North but instead called for a level-headed investigation of the sinking, and when the investigation conclusively pointed to the North as the culprit, he ruled out military option and called for a cautious response.
This prudence is costing Lee, a staunch conservative known for his hawkish polices against North Korea that reversed the so-called Sunshine Doctrine of his liberal predecessors, a lot of political capital at home, where the atmosphere is heavily charged with mixed emotions of grief for the sailors and anger at Kim Jong-il. But he has no other choice. He knows that South Korea can’t go to war. North Korea might be very miserable as an economy, but it has a mighty military. Seoul’s ten million inhabitants are vulnerable not only to North Korea’s artillery but to its nuclear weaponry as well.
That is not to say, however, the the North can easily go to war. My take is that Kim Jong-il is aware that in the event of total war, a surgical airstrike by the enemy could render his nuclear deterrent useless and an overwhelming invasion of combined South Korean and American forces would spell his doom. And in such an event, China would most likely not defend him.
So, if Kim Jong-il wasn’t really fishing for war, why the heck did he torpedo that South Korean ship? Former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan believes that the this provocation is profoundly related to three things: North Korea’s strategic and tactical boldness derived from its emergence as a de-facto nuclear state, the factor of succession and the present economic malaise in North Korea. I think this is spot on.
As I see it, the provocation was done to enhance the image of the Kim dynasty among the ruling elite in North Korea, especially the military, in order to further cement the position of Kim Jong-un as succesor-apparent to his father; and also to divert the North Korean citizens’ attention from the worsening economic hardship brought about by mismanagement and international sanctions. As always, Kim Jong-il is pushing the limits of South Korea and the United States for his own domestic gains. As I have said on this blog before, the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear state has given it a considerable amount of leverage to gain concessions from the United States, South Korea and Japan. Kim has used this leverage successfuly against George W. Bush, who had largely caved in to Kim’s demands. These successes have probably made Kim believe that he can go as far as sinking a South Korean ship and get away with it; thinking that if a neo-con like Bush would not call his nuclear bluff, neither would a liberal like Obama. And if the United States would not call his nuclear bluff, neither would South Korea. It was clearly a gamble on Kim’s part and if he wins, heaven knows what kind of stunts he would do next.
The challenge therefore is to prevent further reckless provocations by Kim Jong-il by not letting him get away easily with this action while at the same time preventing full-scale war that would make the Korean peninsula, and perhaps along with it the stability of the whole of East Asia, explode. This would be a tough balancing act because the only way Kim would realize that he has crossed the limit is for South Korea and the United States to send a strong message that they are willing to go to war if necessary; but then doing so would risk irrational response from a dictator who feels being pushed against the wall.
This is where China can come in. It can play the role of a trusted voice of reason for North Korea, prodding the reclusive regime to realize the gravity of the situation but at the same time be wise enough not to escalate the tensions. This, too, would be a tough balancing act on Beijing’s part because in order for North Korea to realize the gravity of its actions, China must not water down any Security Council resolution that would impose sanctions on Pyongyang; but then doing so would risk Kim Jong-il being suspicious of China and feeling more isolated and thus susceptible to irrational judgements.