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     Sep 4, 2010
Old hand points new finger of blame
By Donald Kirk

QUANTICO, Virginia - North Korea has found an advocate in a most unlikely place for its claim of innocence in the sinking of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan on March 26. How about the former chairman and president of the Korea Society, a forum in New York for cultural events, news analyses and policy discussions that's funded in large measure by South Korean conglomerates and the government in Seoul?

That would be Donald P Gregg, a former US Central Intelligence Agency officer who was ambassador to South Korea during the presidency of George H W Bush from 1989 to 1993 after having served him faithfully as his national security adviser during his eight years as vice president. In an op-ed article in The New York Times, Gregg takes seriously a Russian report that the Cheonan somehow "dredged up a mine that then blew the ship up".

Never mind that the waters were too deep for the ship to have hit


bottom and no old mine could have split it in two and sunk it in minutes. Instead Gregg pours cold water on the South Korean investigation in which experts from the US and four other countries concurred that the Cheonan could only have been blown in two that way by a torpedo fired by a submarine. "Details of the South Korean investigation of the Cheonan tragedy have not been made public," he writes, forgetting the detailed summary released in May and a complete report already scrutinized by diplomats and journalists.

The real bottom line, which the Chinese and North Koreans will love, is that Gregg holds the US and South Korea responsible for making matters worse. Between them, he says, these two are driving North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il and son and heir presumptive Kim Jong-eun into the arms of the dreaded Chinese, who, bless them, are "far more worried by instability on the Korean Peninsula" than by a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Blame the headstrong Americans and South Koreans, then, for making matters ever worse by wanting to sharpen skills in anti-submarine warfare when, if Gregg's judgment is at all credible, no one knows if a submarine was anywhere near the Cheonan when it went down "under mysterious circumstances".

Given this view, Gregg is no doubt all the more upset by the prospect of two American guided-missile destroyers, a fast-attack submarine and anti-submarine aircraft joining South Korean warships next week in exercises in the Yellow Sea near where the Cheonan was sunk with a loss of the lives of 46 sailors. American ships have been in the Yellow Sea before, but not in such force since the sinking of the Cheonan - and not since the Chinese on any number of levels decried any American naval presence in those waters as a real and immediate threat to the Chinese mainland.

The American entry into the Yellow Sea comes at a critical moment in a pattern of rising tensions in which North Korea, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Cheonan, is falling inexorably under Chinese protection. Kim Jong-il's failing health adds urgency to the quest for massive Chinese aid and investment - and the need to be sure that Chinese leaders will accept Kim Jong-eun as his successor when the North's Workers' Party anoints him, as expected, at an extraordinary session later this month.

Those overwhelming concerns rendered last week's visit to Pyongyang by Jimmy Carter, the former American president, a minor matter. Kim had no trouble fobbing Carter off on his number two, Kim Yong-nam, while running off on an elaborately planned visit across the Yalu River into northeastern China.

Nor was the Dear Leader forced into the role of a mendicant. President Hu Jintao spared him that embarrassment by arriving from Beijing to meet Kim in between visits to the historic haunts of his father, the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung. The whole show, obviously scripted well in advance, relegated Carter's "humanitarian" mission to bring home an American jailbird to the level of a minor nuisance.

This display of Chinese solidarity with poor North Korea, all the more pitiable after floods again ravaged land stripped bare by deforestation, no doubt helped to compensate for the US decision to strengthen economic sanctions - or, as Gregg put it, "sanctions and hostility" that he believed would have "little positive impact".

Gregg did not, of course find it necessary to mention that the strengthened sanctions targeted, among other things, the infamous "Bureau 39", the agency directly responsible for shipping arms, drugs, counterfeit currency and nuclear components and technology far and wide. Rather, his main concern seemed to be that such rudeness would instill "mistrust and hostility" in Kim Jong-eun at a time when the US should have been inviting the kid, still in his 20s and not confirmed to have been photographed since his school days in Switzerland, over to Washington for a getting-to-know-you visit.

Not that "strengthened" sanctions will have that much impact. It does strain credibility to think that father Jong-il and son Jong-eun will suffer from the loss of beloved luxury items of which the sanctions also are intended to deprive them. Those designer sunglasses that the Dear Leader wears on visits to factories and farms should be available along with most everything else in his personal inventory from across the Chinese border. On a larger level, China should also be able to come to the rescue in cases in which economic measures pose a real inconvenience by blacklisting funds frozen in US institutions or banning firms from doing business with firms in cahoots with the North.

As North Korea moves closer to China, however, another danger emerges. China and North Korea now are pressing for the same six-party talks on its nuclear weapons that North Korea had been refusing to attend before the sinking of the Cheonan. Calls for a return to the table parallel rising rhetoric about "all-out war".

That's good news to Gregg, who finds "a growing realization in Washington that alienating China is an inordinately high price to pay for putting pressure on Pyongyang".

Gregg has a soul mate in the form of Jack Pritchard, a former US negotiator with North Korea who's now president of the Korea Economic Institute, an arm of the South Korean government in Washington. "North Korea has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons," Pritchard said at an all-day conference at Marine Corps University in Quantico. But "we have to engage the Chinese" and "hope they will at least take measures" to implement sanctions imposed after North Korea's second nuclear test in May of last year.

Others at the conference saw China in quite a different light. "China's reaction to military exercises reflected China's sense as 'the center of the world'," said Chun Song-whun, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "One day, who knows, China might attack the new US base at Pyongtaek," the Yellow Sea port at which the US is consolidating its headquarters and other forces in South Korea. "It's going to be a strategic hub. China might see the base as a threat to the gateway to Tientsin and Beijing."

To Gregg's dismay, President Barack Obama has seemed less willing to compromise than did his predecessor, George W Bush, whom Gregg often compared unfavorably to his father but who did take North Korea off the US list of "terrorist" states. If Gregg's ambivalence on the Cheonan means anything, however, it is that Washington will want to compromise again. The ultimate South Korean fear has always been that of betrayal at the table. "Engagement based on wishful thinking is worse than compromise," said Chun.

In a showdown, "China could be a terrible stumbling block to security and verification," said Kim Doug-joong, professor at the South's Kyonggi University. Meanwhile, he said, "the loss of 46 sailors in the Cheonan incident should be the last casualty of the confrontation of the two Koreas."

Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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