South Korea’s time for doing nothing

By Abraham Kim How do you respond when your enemy sinks one of your ships and drowns dozens of your sailors? If you believe your better-armed enemy wants a fight, can you afford to do nothing? In a democracy? In an election year? As voters mourn the dead and look to you for leadership? On ...

By , the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media.
KIM JAE-MYEONG/AFP/Getty Images
KIM JAE-MYEONG/AFP/Getty Images
KIM JAE-MYEONG/AFP/Getty Images

By Abraham Kim

By Abraham Kim

How do you respond when your enemy sinks one of your ships and drowns dozens of your sailors? If you believe your better-armed enemy wants a fight, can you afford to do nothing? In a democracy? In an election year? As voters mourn the dead and look to you for leadership?

On 27 March, an explosion sank the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Preliminary reports from an international team of investigators led by South Korea suggest a possible torpedo attack, but the evidence is still inconclusive. Publicly, North Korea is denying any responsibility, but privately, Pyongyang could be sending a signal to South Korea and its allies that it is losing patience with the lack of humanitarian and energy assistance coming from the international community. Also, North Korea could be trying to stir up another crisis to help consolidate domestic support behind the regime as economic troubles worsen. Aiming to comfort a mourning population, the South Korean leadership has vowed that the government’s response will be "strong and resolute" once the cause is identified and those responsible are found — a veiled threat against Pyongyang. Despite the tough rhetoric, punitive action will ultimately be muted once Pyongyang is implicated. South Korea and the international community have very little leverage over North Korea, especially without Beijing’s cooperation. At the same time, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak must stabilize the situation before events begin to disrupt the economy and other national affairs.

South Korea and the international community have few palatable options. A military response from South Korea could set off a tit-for-tat exchange with a nuclear-armed North Korean military that would have its long-range guns and missiles locked on Seoul. Closing the Kaesong special economic zone — the only North-South Korea joint venture currently in operation — wouldn’t impose much additional hardship on Kim Jong-Il’s regime. The likeliest option, an appeal to the U.N. Security Council for punitive action, might not amount to much, since China and Russia would probably block any bid to impose additional sanctions on an already isolated Pyongyang. In Shanghai last week, Lee failed to win a commitment from Chinese President Hu Jintao to support a joint international response if North Korea was found responsible for the Cheonan incident. With Kim Jong-Il currently in Beijing to seek more aid, it’s unlikely that China will join in punishing the regime. In the end, the international community’s response will probably amount to empty public condemnation with a few toothless sanctions.

This isn’t all bad for South Korea, because the Lee administration has a clear interest in keeping a lid on further turmoil on the Korean peninsula. The government fears that new tension could take the steam from South Korea’s struggle to recover from the global financial crisis and unnerve foreign investors that recently have taken greater interest in the market. Last month, Moody’s upgraded South Korea’s credit rating from A2 to A1, highlighting the growing momentum that the government wants to maintain. In addition, Seoul will host the G20 summit in November, and the Lee government wants to avoid any trouble that would make heads of state and business leaders think twice about attending. The president sees the summit as a tremendous opportunity for South Korea to demonstrate that it’s the newest developed country on the global scene and an economic leader during a time of considerable economic anxiety.

That said, Lee’s government will have to say something more substantive about the Cheonan sinking to avoid the appearance of shrugging off what amounts to a North Korean act of war. This is not to signal that authorities are ready to take any substantive punitive action, but more to manage domestic politics. Lee has learned the hard way during his two years in power that the government sometimes has to allow for the expression of public outrage before a page can safely be turned. Otherwise, as in the 2008 anti-U.S. beef protest and the aftermath of former president Roh Moo-hyun’s suicide, shifting winds can direct public fury toward the government itself.

The political stakes are particularly high in light of upcoming local elections, widely considered a referendum on Lee’s presidency. Political observers suggest that a poor showing for Lee’s Grand National Party on June 2 could leave President Lee a lame duck president for the next two and a half years. So far, Lee has managed the crisis with political sensitivity and dexterity. He may even benefit from rising anger at North Korea if outrage over the Cheonan incident rallies voters to Lee and his party.

If South Korea retaliates against North Korea, Lee will have done Kim Jong-Il a favor. If Seoul swallows hard and moves on, it may be Kim who has done Lee a favor.

Abraham Kim is an Asia analyst at Eurasia Group.    

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer

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