Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Time to stop putting up with North Korea

After the suspicious sinking on March 26 of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, an investigation was conducted by South Korea with assistance from the United States, Britain, Sweden, and Australia to determine the cause. The results are expected to be officially announced this week. It will come as little surprise that ...

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

After the suspicious sinking on March 26 of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, an investigation was conducted by South Korea with assistance from the United States, Britain, Sweden, and Australia to determine the cause. The results are expected to be officially announced this week. It will come as little surprise that a North Korean torpedo attack will be found responsible for the death of 46 South Korean sailors.

Since 2008, North Korea has stepped up this kind of hostile activity. It has conducted more nuclear tests, launched at least 12 missiles and rockets, increased its arms trade with regimes like Iran, Republic of Congo, Syria and Burma, and increased its intelligence activities against South Korea. Even in the midst of this stepped-up bellicosity, the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan is perhaps the most blatant provocation against South Korea in the past two decades, and an act of war under international law. Ironically the DPRK continues to advocate publicly for the reunification of the Korean peninsula - while it attacks its own relatives.

It is not clear what drives North Korea's actions. Many speculate the regime does this to distract the international community during a volatile time of a leadership succession, or to divert the attention of its own oppressed citizens who live on less than 1700 calories a day, many of whom resort to grazing in local parks for edible grasses (which I saw firsthand during a visit to Pyongyang). The country as a whole continues to face the potential of another famine. Callous hardliners remain steadfast in tormenting their own people only for the sake of maintaining the regime's monopoly on power.

After the suspicious sinking on March 26 of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, an investigation was conducted by South Korea with assistance from the United States, Britain, Sweden, and Australia to determine the cause. The results are expected to be officially announced this week. It will come as little surprise that a North Korean torpedo attack will be found responsible for the death of 46 South Korean sailors.

Since 2008, North Korea has stepped up this kind of hostile activity. It has conducted more nuclear tests, launched at least 12 missiles and rockets, increased its arms trade with regimes like Iran, Republic of Congo, Syria and Burma, and increased its intelligence activities against South Korea. Even in the midst of this stepped-up bellicosity, the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan is perhaps the most blatant provocation against South Korea in the past two decades, and an act of war under international law. Ironically the DPRK continues to advocate publicly for the reunification of the Korean peninsula – while it attacks its own relatives.

It is not clear what drives North Korea’s actions. Many speculate the regime does this to distract the international community during a volatile time of a leadership succession, or to divert the attention of its own oppressed citizens who live on less than 1700 calories a day, many of whom resort to grazing in local parks for edible grasses (which I saw firsthand during a visit to Pyongyang). The country as a whole continues to face the potential of another famine. Callous hardliners remain steadfast in tormenting their own people only for the sake of maintaining the regime’s monopoly on power.

How will the international community react? Thus far, the U.S. has depended largely on the six-party talks to find a peaceful resolution to security concerns with North Korea, and during the past three years of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak’s administration, Seoul only took a reactive stance against North Korea’s aggressions and left Kim Jong Il  in the driver’s seat. Similarly in this instance, South Korea, the U.S. and the international community look likely to react by taking the sinking of the Cheonan to the U.N. Security Council and seeking greater sanctions against North Korea.

UNSC sanctions and condemnation are a necessary but not sufficient step. Now is the time for both South Korea and the United States to step up and define a firm policy towards North Korea. The Lee administration needs to stop pursuing a reactive policy and firmly declare its position towards the North. South Korea should preempt another North Korean provocation by defining new rules of engagement such that if North Korea seeks reunification or economic growth, it must adhere to an international framework with clear conditions and benchmarks. The burden of compliance must be put on the North. 

Next week, Seoul will be meeting with delegations from the United States and China.  During these meetings, South Korea should take the initiative to seek support for its North Korea policy. The U.S., which still has major military facilities on the peninsula, should express its unwillingness to resume six-party talks until the North demonstrates that it is meeting the clearly defined benchmarks set forth from the South Korean administration. Until North Korea starts adhering to South Korean and international standards, it should be put back on the United States list as a state sponsor of terror.  The U.S. should also press China, which is seeking an FTA with South Korea, to declare its support for Seoul’s policy and not succumb to North Korea’s manipulative appeals for continued aid. 

As long as China remains ambivalent in its reaction to North Korea’s aggressive behaviour, it is demonstrating a continued interest in maintaining a divided peninsula that produces regional tension and instability. Without a clear strategy towards North Korea, we can expect more of North Korea’s hostile actions.

More from Foreign Policy

The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.

The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

The Azerbaijani army patrols the streets of Shusha on Sept. 25 under a sign that reads: "Dear Shusha, you are free. Dear Shusha, we are back. Dear Shusha, we will resurrect you. Shusha is ours."

From the Ruins of War, a Tourist Resort Emerges

Shusha was the key to the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Baku wants to turn the fabled fortress town into a resort.

Frances Pugh in 2019's Midsommar.

Scandinavia’s Horror Renaissance and the Global Appeal of ‘Fakelore’

“Midsommar” and “The Ritual” are steeped in Scandinavian folklore. Or are they?