Kim Jong Il’s declaration last week that he was willing to ‘provide favorable conditions for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks’ marked a positive change in tone from North Korea’s previous insistence on a peace treaty with the U.S. as a precondition to resuming negotiations. However, the pledge comes just six weeks after the deadly sinking of a South Korean navy vessel, the Cheonan – a catastrophe that Seoul appears set to formally accuse North Korea this week of.
While it’s unclear if the torpedo rumored to have sunk the Cheonan was actually launched by the order of Kim Jong Il, both the U.S and South Korea have made it clear that there will be no resumption of nuclear talks until the case is resolved. And until a response is decided upon and implemented, engagement of any sort will remain out of the question.
While North Korea denied attacking the Cheonan, sources within both the U.S and South Korean Governments have continued to insinuate that Pyongyang is to blame. Suggestions that a key KPA General was promoted at the time of the sinking, and that a rumor of responsibility has been ‘proudly’ circulating North Korea, further call into question Pyongyang’s assertion of innocence. Other indicators of North Korean culpability include the fact that the ship sunk so close to the disputed Northern Limit Line and the traces of the powerful explosive ‘RDX’ recently identified at the scene. Despite all this, there has still been no official confirmation of what seems to be crystal clear – a North Korean torpedo sunk the Cheonan…
Two weeks after the sinking, Aidan Foster-Carter characterized the unwillingness to attribute blame as a South Korean effort to stabilize markets and avoid a potentially bloody conflict wit the North. Now, however, the near continuous flow of leaks incriminating North Korea has rendered this strategy increasingly untenable for President Lee Myung-Bak.
Likely aware that is has no meaningful or workable policies with which to respond to the North’s latest provocation, South Korea is looking at measures such as stopping sand imports from the DPRK, revising their 2020 Defense Reform plans, and urging businesses to refrain from investing in North Korea. For its part, the U.S has stated that it is looking at the tightening of existing sanctions or the possibility of raising the issue at the UN’s Security Council. It also appears that South Korea and the U.S. will present their Cheonan findings to partners within the Six Party framework – presumably to drum up support for some form of joint condemnation / punishment.
To be sure, none of these response strategies will change anything about North Korea’s future behavior. More bad behavior may even ensue. And the prospects for even talking about denuclearization will lose further traction – for the short to medium-term at least. But as frustrating as this is, South Korea and the U.S have no choice, as was the case after the DMZ axe murders of 1976. With 46 navy personnel killed, there must be a negative consequence for Pyongyang – however negligible that might seem given current options.
The whole episode underscores the current failure of North Korea policy. Be it Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ or Lee Myung-Bak’s efforts to cold-shoulder North Korea, it is evident that neither approach has so far achieved anything constructive. The idea that Pyongyang would come crawling back to the table to engage with the U.S and South Korea in the face of heightened sanctions and continued isolation has simply proven incorrect. With the sinking of the Cheonan, North Korea sent a nasty reminder that it will not be ignored, fully aware that South Korea and its allies are in no position to exact meaningful consequences.
Despite this author’s belief that North Korea will never give up its nuclear arsenal (assuming Kim Jong-Eun is no different from his father), it is clear that to ignore Pyongyang is to do so at one’s own peril. While the Six Party Talks are unlikely to achieve their overriding goal while the Kim dynasty is in power, they do represent a form of high level engagement that has potential to foster both constructive outcomes and mutual respect. They can reduce tensions, help rejuvenate North-South economic interaction, and perhaps freeze North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing activities again. All of this is an upgrade over the current mess of a status quo.
The clock is ticking. As each day passes, the North Korean regime is walking one step closer to its ultimate demise. By essentially ignoring North Korea, and leaving it to vent its frustration through acts of belligerency, the U.S and South Korea are putting themselves in a position where their stern responses will only work to harden that landing in the long run. This will clearly be the case, if for example a freeze on economic interaction in response to the Cheonan be implemented, which has been estimated to cost up to 80,000 North Korean jobs and the loss of US$370 million per year – a significant sum for cash strapped Pyongyang.
So while punishment is necessary, by what means must be chosen carefully. And after that, increased engagement will be key, even if denuclearization seems unfeasible.
North Korea wants and badly needs attention. With the Cheonan incident, it has given the world a taste of what happens when it does not get it. And as Aidan Foster-Carter puts it, next time the ‘Pyongyang pressure cooker may be liable to explode’.