Seoul plotted a course through crisis
By Andrei Lankov
SEOUL - South Korea on Monday halted all trade with North Korea and closed its
sea lanes to Pyongyang's vessels over the sinking of the corvette Cheonan
in March. The measures came a day after Seoul vowed to take Pyongyang to the
United Nations Security Council over the "clear armed provocation".
The response follows the May 21 results of an investigation into the sinking,
but it seems certain that the South Korean government either knew or strongly
suspected all along that the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean stealth
attack. The Blue House (the center of presidential power) likely realized
quickly that an admission of this fact would present the government with a
dangerous dilemma, particularly if it were made immediately after the incident.
On March 26, the Cheonan was on a patrol near the Northern
Limit Line, or NLL, a de-facto sea border between the two Koreas, when it was
hit by a powerful explosion that split the warship in two. It sank within a few
minutes, taking the lives of 46 sailors, about half of its crew.
Taking into account the place and nature of the incident, as well as recent
North Korean threats, it was only logical to suspect that the explosion was the
work of the North Korean military. Indeed, for a brief while, the actions of
the South Korean government were clearly based on the assumption that a major
North Korean provocation had taken place, so a greater conflict would probably
However, it only took a couple of days for the tone of government statements to
change dramatically. In the first few weeks that followed the disaster, until
early May, the South Korean government went to remarkable lengths to downplay
the possibility of North Korean involvement.
Spokespeople repeated that it would be wrong to jump to "premature
conclusions", and emphasized that North Korean involvement, while not
impossible, was by no means certain. A few days after the disaster, a Ministry
of Defense spokesperson said North Korean submarine activity was "routine" (now
we know that this was not quite true), while the defense minister suggested
that a floating mine was a likely explanation for the disaster. Meanwhile,
President Lee Myung-bak asked for "calm and patience".
Bruce Klingner, a life-long North Korea specialist from the Heritage
Foundation, who visited Korea in late April, wryly wrote that the South Korean
response reminded him of "a CSI [crime scene investigation] investigator who,
upon seeing a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, refuses to rule out
a heart attack as the cause of death since the only suspect in the room with a
pistol was a vicious gangland boss".
However, this denial was not quite sincere. As many observers (present author
included) pointed out from the beginning, there were good reasons why in the
initial stages the South Korean government wanted to discourage suspicions
about North Korean involvement.
The Cheonan disaster had put Lee in an unenviable position. This may
have even been one of the goals Pyongyang strategists had in mind when planning
the attack. While the main task was to avenge humiliating defeats in recent
naval skirmishes, the strategists also likely hoped to put the right-leaning
government in Seoul into a "lose-lose" situation. However, Lee, once seen as
rather inept in handling public opinion, this time showed his Machiavellian
In the first days and weeks after the incident, while television was
broadcasting footage of crying mothers and orphaned children, revelations of
Pyongyang's involvement would have certainly angered the South Korean public.
The demand for revenge would have been immediate, and come above all from
government supporters and sympathizers.
However, Seoul knew perfectly well that no revenge was possible under the
circumstances. Military retaliation, while technically feasible, would have a
highly negative impact on the international situation of South Korea as well as
on its economy.
Had South Korea chosen to retaliate in kind, for example, by sinking a couple
of North Korean navy vessels or raiding their military facilities, the
operation would probably have been a military success. However, this success
would have no influence on Pyongyang policymakers, who are indifferent to the
suffering of their own populace and who can easily hide the scale of military
disasters from their own population.
After all, the children of the North Korean elite do not risk their lives
serving as sailors (or even officers) in the rusty old ships of the North
Korean navy. They are busy studying in Paris, or shopping in Hong Kong. If
anything, such an attack would have made North Korean people rally around the
regime, which could present itself as the victim of an unprovoked aggression.
A retaliatory attack would have also increased the chances of escalation. At
any rate, the only net result would have been a dramatic increase in the level
of international tensions in and around the Korean Peninsula. The South Korean
economy would have suffered, since investors and bankers do not like to deal
with areas where tensions are high. This would lead to a decline in economic
performance and growing public dissatisfaction with the government.
The same voters who would initially demand tough retaliatory actions would be
the ones hardest hit by the unavoidable consequences of such actions - and in
due course, they would blame the government.
Any retaliation would be counter-productive. However, a refusal to react to
what was an act of war would have been equally risky. It would have been seen
by the public as a sign of weakness, and Lee - like any other politician -
would not want to appear weak.
The South Korean administration found itself in a classic lose-lose situation:
if the government did immediately react, it would be blamed for the unavoidable
consequences of such reaction; if it did not, it would be accused of weakness.
Thus, a clever exercise in crisis management began. While analyzing the recent
moves of the Lee administration it is important to keep in mind that these
actions were largely designed to influence a domestic, not international,
As we have seen, in the first stages, government officials worked hard to
downplay the likelihood of North Korean involvement. Lee said a number of times
the issue was "a very sensitive and important question", so it warranted a
careful and scientific investigation. In other words, it was suggested that
nothing could be done before the results of the official investigation were
made public. This was a good way to calm the situation.
The Blue House hoped that the public's anger would be less intense by the time
the report was finally published, and that the admission of North Korea's
involvement would not lead to mass demands for revenge.
Lee also had to counter a threat from a different direction. He knew from
recent Korean history that every time the North stages a major provocation, the
South Korean nationalist left (especially vocal, perhaps even dominant, among
well-educated Koreans in their 30s and 40) always claims that the incident had
nothing to do with North Korea but was a dirty trick played by the government.
When North Korean agents bombed a South Korean civilian airliner in 1987, for
example, South Korean leftist nationalists launched a noisy campaign alleging
that government agents planted the bomb (despite North Korean agents being
apprehended by a foreign country for the act). Similar allegations were made
when North Korean commandos tried to kill South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan
in 1983, as well as when they raided downtown Seoul in 1968.
To thwart such accusations, Lee invited experts from Australia, the United
Kingdom and Sweden to join the investigation team. US experts alone were not
enough, since the conspiracy theory of the left maintains that US imperialists
are behind the alleged dirty tricks of the conservative elite.
So far, the tactics have paid off. When on May 21 the government finally
released the results of the investigation and admitted that a North Korean
torpedo was the cause of the disaster, the Cheonan affair was far lower
on the public's agenda.
Accusations of foul play did surface - taking the peculiarities of South Korean
politics into account, it could not be otherwise. As usual, the opposition
(that is, the leftist nationalists) launched a propaganda campaign insisting
that the Cheonan was sunk by something else, perhaps a mine lost by the
Americans (who else?). But it seems the ideas so far have not found much
fertile ground outside the circles of middle-aged "progressive" professors and
However, there may be a tiny seed of truth in some of the accusations put
forward by the opposition. Leftist newspapers insist the government timed the
release of the investigation report to influence the outcome of local
elections. They might be right; the elections are scheduled for June 2, and the
new evidence of North Korean involvement will influence voters. They will be
more likely to vote for pro-government candidates since the opposition is seen
as a force that is "soft on Pyongyang" if not explicitly "pro-Pyongyang".
While passions have cooled, to be sure, and it is unlikely the Korean public
will demand, say, air strikes against North Korean submarine bases - challenges
remain for South Korea's right-wing politicians. Passions are still
sufficiently high to create trouble if the government is seen as weak and
gutless. The government still needs to do something that will appear to the
public as tough and decisive, while avoiding actions that might lead to a
deterioration of the situation. This is where this week's trade ban and calls
for penalties at the UN Security Council could fit in.
It appears the major emphasis will be on diplomacy. We can expect the next few
weeks to be full of frenetic diplomatic activities. Seoul's special envoys will
fly across the globe, persuading foreign governments to join the South in
condemnation of North Korea's act. Needless to say, they will have success only
in preaching to the converted.
No amount of evidence would be enough to persuade, for example, China to
condemn North Korea - even in democratic countries the governments (or, for
that matter, all political forces) are very good at ignoring evidence that goes
against their vested interests, and China is by no means a democracy.
However, it has the veto power in the UN Security Council and, generally
speaking, is the only country that might have a modicum of influence towards
North Korea. Russia, another permanent member, is also going to remain
officially skeptical - once again, it is understandable: it is clearly against
Russia's current political interests to press the North Korean rulers too hard.
However, it would be naive to think that the Lee administration does not grasp
these realities of international politics. These people are by no means
starry-eyed idealists. They do not mind results on the diplomatic front, what
they really need now is not results, but the sight of frenzied activity.
They will be able to present this activity as an indication of their efforts to
react to the challenge in a proper way. This will have a calming effect on the
South Korean public, and this is what the government really wants. The
diplomatic activity is being augmented by careful moves on the economic front,
like the trade ban. Needless to say, these will be described as "stern
measures" as well.
It will take months before the failure of the diplomatic efforts (and complete
inefficiency of everything else) will become clear. By that time, one might
expect, the Cheonan tragedy will have become a thing of the past, and
Korean public opinion will move to other, more pressing, issues.
So, this time Lee and his advisers have a good chance of emerging from a
difficult crisis as survivors, if not winners. They skillfully avoided doing
something stupid and dangerous while preserving their dignity in the eyes of
their voters and, perhaps, scoring a few additional percentage points in the
And what can be done about future possible Cheonan incidents? Frankly,
not much, but it would be sensible to pay attention to anti-submarine defense,
the only thing that is going to help.
Andrei Lankov is an associate professor at Kookmin University in Seoul,
and adjunct research fellow at the Research School of Pacifica and Asian
Studies, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State
University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea.
He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia.