A number of second tier news sources have been filling out the story that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean frigate on March 26 this year. They portray the sinking as an overt act of aggression towards the South. The Korea Times says a “joint investigation team has reportedly found screw pieces of torpedo … the manufacturers of the screw are shortlisted to two countries Russia and China”. Bernama datelined Seoul says “foreign experts and investigators concluded … the suspected weapon appears to be a heavy acoustic homing torpedo.”
known as a Yu-3G, the same type that North Korea imported from the neighbouring nation in the 1980s and one of a series of torpedoes North Korea has deployed, including the ET-80A, TYPE 53-59 and TYPE 53-56, Yonhap news agency cited the sources as saying.
“The fragments collected from the scene where the 1,200 tonne patrol ship Cheonan has Chinese and Russian languages written inside. Investigators too found traces of explosive in the wreckage was identical in composition to propellant explosive contained in astray North Korean torpedo that South Korea recovered from the southern coast seven years ago”.
Chosun Ilbo says the serial number of the torpedo propeller, dredged from the attack site, was inscribed in North Korean style characters. The double propeller, characteristic of torpedo propulsion systems was consistent with a computerized simulation showing that “a 250 kg, mid-sized sonar-tracking torpedo exploded 3 m below the gas turbine room of the vessel. They have apparently proved that the traces of explosives found on the Cheonan are similar to some of the propellants used in the sample North Korean torpedo.” The diesel engine of the Cheonan has been recovered, but a turbine, presumably a remnant of the torpedo, has also been found though not yet recovered.
This is the kind of press buildup which normally precedes some kind of dramatic action. But in this case that is unlikely to be the case. The BBC has already suggested the South Korean revelations are escalating tensions “ahead of a report by a multinational team into the causes of the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship.” Although US and Australian naval experts are cited as concurring with the conclusions, no official report from those sources has emerged so far. Seoul is still officially alone in making the allegations. Its allies, though nominally supportive, have been content to stay in the background.
This means sanctions. ABC News reports that “President Lee and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed during a 25-minute telephone conversation Tuesday that both countries will work to impose stronger sanctions against North Korea immediately after the official announcement is made.” The Christian Science Monitor cites a Korean analyst who believes that retaliation has been ruled out and the UN is the next stop.
“I would exclude the two extreme scenarios,” he says. “The first is doing nothing, and the second is a tit-for-tat retaliation.” … Between those unlikely extremes, he and other analysts expect that South Korea and the United States will bring the attack before the UN Security Council in a demand for tougher sanctions beyond those imposed by the UN after North Korea’s second nuclear test one year ago.
But UN sanctions mean getting China to go along, which some observers believe is likely because “China cares about its international image.” They have not cared enough about it to act against Iran, that other target of ‘sanctions’. But sanctions are notoriously leaky especially if they involve countries with a large land border with China. Even South Korean aid is unlikely to stop completely, observers quoted by the Monitor said. “South Korea is not expected to bar small- and medium-sized companies from light industrial production in the North Korean city of Kaesong, about 40 miles north of Seoul, but could stop expansion of South Korean operations there. South Korean factories employ about 40,000 North Korean workers in an industrial zone in Kaesong, pouring $50 million a year into North Korean government coffers.” Under these circumstances ‘sanctions’ are probably going to be used as a face-saving substitute for action rather than as a realistic alternative to it.
Anyway it’s all America’s fault. A New York Times article by Joel Wit, a former State Department official, says the problem is that the US has failed to “engage” North Korea. “Negotiations with North Korea can be frustrating, but dialogue can work. It worked in 1994, when intelligence suggested that an unconstrained North could have bomb-making material for almost 100 nuclear weapons by 2000. The agreement reached months later prevented that. By the time that accord collapsed, in 2002, the North had enough material for only six weapons. Even limited success is better than none at all.” The Obama administration’s problem, Wit feels, is that they’ve been too hard on North Korea.
The Cheonan sinking makes clear the dangers of playing a waiting game. The sinking — probably the North’s effort to retaliate for past clashes and to humiliate the conservative South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak — shows how unwise it is to leave stability on the peninsula hostage to Pyongyang’s goodwill.
What should the Obama administration do instead? Since Mr. Kim has said publicly that he is open to talks, the United States should do nothing to shut what may be a window of opportunity. Now that North Korea has been found responsible for the Cheonan sinking, Seoul will demand — and the United States should support — punishing Pyongyang.
But the Cheonan sinking also provides an opportunity for the Obama administration to shift its approach to North Korea. Now, we should avoid steps that might lead to a major escalation of tensions. One reasonable response would be to seek condemnation by the United Nations Security Council, while expanding military defenses against the North and strengthening cooperation with Japan.
And instead of demanding new preconditions for talks — an apology for the Cheonan, for example — we should mount a gradual pragmatic effort to engage in new discussions, not as a reward for bad behavior or to talk for the sake of talking, but to make us more secure.
Based on the signals being sent out by the different national and political actors it would seem that 1) at least some elements in South Korea want to take actions beyond sanctions against North Korea; 2) Seoul leaked the results of the investigation to anchor the blame on North Korea before it could be watered down by the allied diplomats; 3) notwithstanding any tendencies in Seoul to retaliate, there are powerful diplomatic and economic reasons to do nothing beyond ‘tighten’ sanctions; 4) the maximal US response will be to take the matter to the UN Security Council, but there remains a faction which believes America hasn’t done enough to engage North Korea. Will the outcome of this probable scenario ‘stop’ North Korea?
Probably not. Even Joel Wit, who makes the case for more ‘engagement’ touts only the “limited success” that can attend diplomatic efforts. He takes comfort in the achievements of the Clinton era negotiators who ensured that North Korea would have only fissile material for six nuclear weapons.
It worked in 1994, when intelligence suggested that an unconstrained North could have bomb-making material for almost 100 nuclear weapons by 2000. The agreement reached months later prevented that. By the time that accord collapsed, in 2002, the North had enough material for only six weapons. Even limited success is better than none at all.
Thus the North Korean tiger will continue to advance, slowed down only by the large slabs of steak and fresh chicken flung in its way by Tokyo, Seoul and the US. But it won’t stop. The question is whether this relentless advance, however moderated by ‘engagement’ will not at some point back South Korea into such a corner that it will have no option but either to lash out or accept some kind of Finlandization. Maybe Finlandization is more likely. A Danish foreign policy writer says that Taiwan can choose this path and this “benefits US security”. “This approach could help defuse one of the most worrying trends in global politics: the emerging rivalry between China and the United States… Under such a scenario, Taiwan would reposition itself as a neutral power, rather than a U.S. strategic ally, in order to mollify Beijing’s fears about the island’s becoming an obstacle to China’s military and commercial ambitions in the region.” In this calculus, the real danger stems from conflicts arising from challenging China’s dominance. Stop struggling, it will be easier that way.
With Japan and the US shown to be reliant on China to implement their program of ‘sanctions’; with Seoul already under the North Korean artillery fan; with the rest of South Korea now essentially under the North Korean nuclear threat, what is there to prevent Seoul from making switching over to Beijing as their patron? If Beijing is the ultimate power on the Korean Peninsula then the Korean War will indeed have ended sixty years after it began with a Chinese victory. Not over the US, mind you, but technically over the United Nations.
“No authority to reinforce, no authority to withdraw”
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