South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has lost the most from the sinking of one
of his navy's corvettes, the Cheonan, while North Korea basks in the
diplomatic victory of the United Nations Security Council's dull response to
A toothless July 8 statement from the UN left Lee short of his objective of
international condemnation for the sinking, which Seoul and the United States
pinned on the North. While the UN did not absolve Pyongyang, it also failed to
directly indict the regime for the sinking. North Korea celebrated the 49th
anniversary of the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship
Treaty on July 10, no doubt with some
appreciation for the invaluable role Beijing played in debasing South Korea's
Lee will clearly have to alter fundamental tactics and attitudes in his
approach to North Korea, putting practical policies and clear objectives in
place to ensure the next crisis does not threaten the long-term stability of
the Pacific Rim. With his well-documented failure to do so in the Cheonan
sinking, Lee has risked the stability of the entire region.
Lee's means of achieving appropriate compensation for the deaths of 46 sailors
in the March 26 incident were nebulous at best, despite the messianic zeal with
which he launched his slightly delayed mission to castigate North Korea in late
With ambiguous objectives, Seoul enacted three courses of action: first, to
suspend all trade and economic ties with North Korea except through the Kaesong
industrial complex; second, to initiate military exercises with the United
States; and third, to launch a diplomatic mission to gain international support
against North Korea. By July, all three retaliatory measures have either
yielded no change or been compromised.
Although South Korea is a clear victim of the Cheonan affair, its
leaders are not guiltless of leaving Seoul in a vulnerable state. From the
start, Seoul did not disclose the government's measure of success in the
diplomatic counter-offensive. In part, this is because the three ministries at
the center of this vast inter-ministerial operation (Unification, Defense and
Foreign Affairs and Trade) never had a clear or realistic understanding of what
they were capable of achieving.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade failed to convince the Chinese and
the Russians to back South Korea. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is
not a crony of the People's Republic of China, but no country has ever achieved
any diplomatic breakthrough with the Kim Jong-il regime without first engaging
According to Karin Lee of the National Committee on North Korea, the Banco
Delta Asia affair  in September 2005 was a clear case in point. The American
crackdown on North Korean money laundering successfully led to preliminary
negotiations on nuclear disarmament because the United States outlined real
financial losses for the Chinese authorities if the status quo was maintained.
But when it came to the Cheonan, The South Korean Ministry of Foreign
Affairs and Trade either seriously underestimated the importance of Chinese
engagement in the sanctions regime or failed to present why having a militarily
responsible Pyongyang would outweigh the economic benefits derived from China's
exclusive relationship with North Korea.
Directly linked with the failure of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Ministry
of Unification also suffered setbacks from unrealistic projections on South
Korean economic leverage over North Korea. The ministry's policy of financially
choking off Pyongyang was reduced to merely subsidizing South Korean
corporations that had been cut off from the North.
On July 13, Hyeon Intaek, the minister of unification, asked the National
Assembly Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee for a $10 million increase in
government subsidies for suspended inter-Korean companies, but failed to
present the committee with any concrete policies toward the North, beyond
waging a financial war of attrition.
Regardless of where North Korea stands today, the country is helplessly inching
towards another food crisis, and left alone will cause further instability in
the region. Most importantly, Seoul must open more avenues of exchange with
Pyongyang to create more opportunity for a breakthrough.
According to Stephen Linton, chairman and founder of the Eugene Bell
Foundation, despite Seoul's tenacity and dedication, South Koreans simply do
not have the embedded connections with the North Koreans to transform their
economic association into political capital.
The greatest asset that South Korea has in the north is the Kaesong industrial
complex, but the Ministry of Unification excluded this location from economic
disengagement because of the dire economic ramifications. While imperiling the
livelihoods of 40,000 North Koreans employed at the complex may raise the
stakes for Pyongyang, the cost that Seoul would have to bear from the financial
losses would be too high for such an uncertain maneuver. Furthermore, closing
down the only significant form of inter-Korean cooperation would only quicken
the ongoing construction in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone and
diminish the much-needed contact between the Koreas.
The Ministry of Defense has been battered the most by domestic criticism since
day one of the Cheonan sinking. Despite the array of high-tech vessels
in the navy, South Korea is still vulnerable to attacks from what seems to be
North Korean miniature submarines.
Although the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS George Washington is
shoring up some support for Lee by sailing in the region, South Korea has
little to gain from antagonism between Beijing and Washington that has been
heightened by the activities of the American Seventh Fleet.
While the short-term benefits of deterring North Korean provocation may have
been achieved for now, tensions between China and the United States create
openings for North Korea to exploit. The tacit support for Pyongyang from
Beijing in the UN Security Council has much to do with the military competition
between the United States and China.
It is this danger of confrontation with China that forces many American
analysts and policymakers to reconsider their ties to South Korea. In
particular, Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, suggested in a
foreign policy briefing on July 14 that the US should withdraw from the Korean
Peninsula to avoid being dragged into conflict over "a parochial quarrel"
between the Koreas, claiming that South Korea was "not critical to America's
While Bandow's views are not accepted by mainstream policymakers in Washington,
they nonetheless betray a degree of doubt among American political and academic
elites over the cost-effectiveness of the US's security guarantee to South
The end result of the Cheonan affair has been a more rapid mobilization
of high-tech arms by all parties in the region. South Korea has produced a
cruise missile with a range of 1,500 kilometers, capable of striking not only
military installations in North Korea but also targets along China's eastern
seaboard. Japan is also due to begin producing a line of supersonic anti-ship
missile, the XASM-3, by 2016.
Meanwhile, China boasts that its medium-range ballistic missile Dong-Feng (DF)
21C, with precision strike capabilities rivaling that of a cruise missile,
could scuttle a supercarrier with a single shot. And the traditional military
superpowers of Russia and the US each have their own vast array of weaponry
engaged in the region.
Rather than cool the crisis, Lee's diplomatic and military offensive to punish
North Korea instead fueled China-US rivalry and in part has encouraged further
militarization of regional powers.
More important for Lee would be to look to the long-term effects of increased
economic cooperation and dialogue with Pyongyang. Heavier engagement in the
North Korean economy, and other avenues of contact, would provide Seoul with
more opportunities for dialogue and greater leverage in dealing with Pyongyang
in the next crisis.
Some limited American troop withdrawal could be put on the table for discussion
to provide incentives for regional stability to not only Pyongyang but also
Considering the South Korean expatriate population in the United States and the
volume of trade between the two countries, Lee can rest easy knowing that the
ties between South Korea and the United States are much stronger than a mere
military alliance. Even if American troops were withdrawn from the peninsula
completely, the US would almost certainly remain a close ally of the republic.
In the 1970s, facing isolation against a North Korean diplomatic offensive in
the developing world, South Korea terminated its policy of shunning engagement
with states that recognized the North Korean government (an adaptation of West
Germany's Hallstein Doctrine against states that recognized communist East
Although inspired by a desperate race for a seat in the United Nations, by
discarding a crucial component of its foreign policy paradigm of 20 years South
Korea experienced flexibility that enhanced its influence and economic prowess
abroad. Likewise, Lee should not cower from inverting foreign policy
preconceptions that only act as barriers to South Korea's potential.
Post-Cheonan, Northeast Asia is more volatile than it has ever been
since the end of the Cold War. The time is ripe for governments to find new
ways of resolving deep-rooted conflicts.
1. In March 2007, the US Treasury ordered US companies and financial
institutions to cut links with Macau-based Banco Delta Asia on account of
allegations concerning its business with the government of North Korea, which
at that time kept US$25 million at the bank in various accounts. North Korea
was able to gain access to funds deposited at the bank by raising the issue
with the United States at the six-party talks on nuclear weapons technology.
The incident is said to have intimidated other banks from doing business with
North Korea and disrupted the country's system for transferring foreign
Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.