South Korea has officially accused Kim Jong Il's regime of committing an act of war. Now comes the hard part.
So now it’s official: North Korea did it. In the early morning hours of March 26 an explosion tore through the hull of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, which was sailing in waters not far from the disputed maritime boundary with the North. The 1,200-ton patrol boat split in two and sank, and 46 sailors lost their lives.
The cause of the disaster wasn’t immediately obvious. No one claimed responsibility for an attack, and some sort of accident was, of course, within the realm of possibility. So the South Korean government launched a probe to figure out what happened. On Thursday, after six weeks of work, the investigators presented their findings. The evidence included fragments, recovered from the sea bottom near the sinking, of a Chinese-made torpedo of a kind known to be in use by the North Korean Navy.
So what happens next? Media commentators assure us that — as is usually the case in matters North Korean — all the options facing South Korean President Lee Myung Bak are bad ones. Yet this commonplace may need a bit of correcting. President Lee’s range of possible moves may be relatively limited, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the ones he chooses will be ineffective. On Friday, Lee ordered his government to prepare "resolute and systematic" countermeasures against North Korea, and announced that he would be announcing further moves in a speech next week. And though he may not go so far as to say it outright, his plan is likely to revolve around doing away with the remnants of the "Sunshine Policy," the South’s decade-long program of rapprochement with the North. Bruce Bennett, a Korea-watcher at the Rand Corporation, notes: "When somebody’s committing acts of war against you there isn’t any sunshine."
The Sunshine Policy was the brainchild of Kim Dae Jung, the dissident-turned-national leader who came to power in Seoul in 1998. Kim assumed that North Korea’s decades of bad behavior could be modified, and the way to do that was by lessening tensions and comprehensively promoting personal and economic contacts between the two countries. The two governments dismantled the propaganda loudspeakers on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, brought together families that had been separated by the Korean War, and organized several grand investment projects on the northern side of the line. (For some reason no one ever assumed that Kim Jong Il might be able to dig up the cash for investments in the South.) One of those projects was the Hyundai-funded tourism resort at Mount Kumgang, just to the north of the DMZ. Another was the Kaesong Industrial Park, where as of last year some 40,000 North Koreans were earning wages in factories run by several dozen South Korean companies.
For a while it seemed to be working: The North toned down its belligerent rhetoric (well, at least a bit), and inter-Korean contacts, once unthinkable, became the order of the day. South Koreans told pollsters that they welcomed the change in atmosphere. (No one ever managed to ask Northerners what they thought). Yet the inflow of South Korean capital and know-how never seemed quite enough to satisfy Pyongyang, and the broader benefits of more relaxed relations never materialized. The North, for all the warming, went on launching missiles and expanding its nuclear programs.
President Lee came to office in 2008 promising to end the unconditional largesse, and, to no one’s real surprise, the North immediately made its disapproval felt, threatening Kaesong investors and refusing to punish a North Korean soldier who shot a southern tourist in cold blood at the Kumgang resort. One theory has it that the sinking of the Cheonan might be the North’s retaliation for a naval skirmish that took place last fall, when the Southerners got into a gunfight with a Northern vessel that violated the maritime border between the two countries. At least two North Korean sailors are said to have died. But there may be more to all of this than meets the eye. Ever since the North Korean leadership badly botched a would-be "currency reform" last fall, triggering the first public protests in recent memory, the regime has looked even wobblier than usual. Add to that Kim Jong Il’s health problems (he apparently suffered a stroke in 2008 and looked shockingly worse for wear during a recent visit to China) and his correspondingly urgent efforts to ensure the succession of his son Kim Jong-un as North Korea’s next leader, and you have a powerful recipe for instability.
All of this means that President Lee has had to tread carefully — and so far he’s been doing a masterful job. Shortly after the attack, he ordered the formation of an investigative panel to be supervised by a bipartisan parliamentary committee — a highly unusual move in the hyper-polarized world of South Korea’s domestic politics. He eschewed condemning the North from the start, even as the families of the drowned sailors were crying out for immediate action.
Andrew Krepinevich, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, notes that Lee’s deliberateness has helped to legitimize the case that Seoul is trying to build: "It’s an approach that shames and discredits the North by showing the restraint and caution of the South." The ranks of the investigative panel include an American, a Canadian, an Australian, and — an especially smart touch — one citizen of famously neutral Sweden. That gave added weight to the commission’s finding that a North Korean task force, including small submarines of the type that presumably snuck up to the Cheonan without being noticed, had left their base a few days before the sinking and returned a few days after.
What will Lee do next? A military counter-attack is probably the least likely option of all, most observers concede — though it certainly makes sense, as President Lee has already vowed to do, to plug any gaps in South Korean defenses that might tempt the North into another sally. As its first move over the next few days, Seoul will probably ask the U.N. Security Council to censure Pyongyang’s actions and apply a fresh round of sanctions in addition to those imposed on the North after its last nuclear test. The biggest challenge there, of course, will be getting the Chinese to come on board — which, given the overwhelming evidence, they might well do, if only at the cost of diluting the language of a subsequent resolution.
Bruce Bechtol, a former military intelligence officer who now teaches at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, recommends another angle: "Taking strong economic measures will hit North Korea where it hurts — in the pocketbook." For instance, it’s time to shut down the Kaesong complex, he insists — and the same goes for the already moribund Kumgang Mountain project, which over its lifetime has served as the source for a billion dollars worth of income to the North Koreans. In the meantime, he says, the U.S. needs to put North Korea back on the State Department’s list of sponsors of state terrorism. (The North was removed from the list by the George W. Bush administration, which was trying to lure Pyongyang back to the now-defunct six-party talks, the negotiating forum aimed at persuading the regime to shed its nuclear weapons.)
Critics respond that all of this is easier said than done. There are still hundreds of South Korean employees living in the Kaesong complex, for example, who will make wonderful hostages in the event of a further uptick in tensions. Rand’s Bennett says that the important thing is for Lee to devise a punishment for the North that falls on the country’s leadership, rather than its already-suffering citizens — as the West’s sanctions have too often done. Now it’s time to make life hard for Kim himself, by gearing up psychological operations that would encourage fissures in his regime. Bennett notes that Pyongyang has reacted especially sensitively to balloon-borne leaflets sent into the North by groups of defectors in recent years. The texts of the leaflets usually assail the regime for its incompetence and corruption, as well as describing some of the maneuverings around Kim’s succession (an issue that’s closed to discussion in the North Korean media).
Perhaps, says Bennett, it’s time to open up the information front on a larger scale. And, what’s more, he’d like to see the South Korean government declare that, from now on, it will be taking explicit measures to cope with a possible collapse of the North Korean regime and the unification that will inexorably follow. This might sound like fairly obvious stuff, but it was anathema to say as much during the Sunshine years. In the wake of the Cheonan incident, Bennett believes, the overwhelming majority of South Koreans will be happy to support that new tack.
Managing some of these policies will be tricky. Expect many an anxious moment along the way; the North can be counted on to rattle its sabers. But given how well President Lee has handled everything up to now, it seems like a good bet to assume that cooler heads will prevail. In South Korea, at least.