After South Korea released its international report on the sinking of the Cheonan detailing North Korean responsibility for the incident, tensions rose on the Korean peninsula to levels not seen in recent years. With South Korea promising a ‘stern response’ to the attack and North Korea promising retaliation that could include a ‘a sacred war involving the whole nation’, it looked like there was real potential for escalation. Now, nearly three weeks on, both South and North Korea appear to be u-turning on a number of the threats they issued. Which begs the question: were the threats just all talk, as we have seen in the past, or were tensions so high (as I explained here) that both sides deemed that they had no choice but to urgently take de-escalatory steps?
Reports initially suggested that South Korea would seek sanctions at the U.N Security Council as part of its promised ‘stern response’ to the sinking of the Cheonan. But Pyongyang threatened to respond to any action at the Security Council using an ‘indiscriminate punishment of our style.’ Nearly three weeks later, Seoul has finally referred the case to the Security Council and naturally, North Korea has responded again with strong rhetoric – even implying the possibility of more missile / nuclear tests. But instead of sanctions, South Korea now seems to be looking to send a ‘political, symbolic and moral message’ at the Security Council. North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric may have contributed to this change in approach, but it also seems that uncertainty over Russia and China’s position curtailed South Korea’s desire to try and get sanctions through the UN.
Another area of policy u-turn seems to be South Korea’s threat to recommence its psychological warfare campaign against the North. Stopped under the sunshine policy of Kim Dae Jung, South Korea had threatened to rebuild a network of loudspeakers to broadcast propaganda across the Demilitarized Zone and drop leaflets over the North containing the probe results of the Cheonan investigation. Of all South Korea’s promised countermeasures this seemed one of the most potentially dangerous, given North Korea’s declaration that it would shell the propaganda speakers with its artillery forces and South Korea’s assertion that it would respond to any attack militarily. Defectors have been on record as suggesting that in this case at least, North Korea’s threats would likely be carried out. Given the severity of Pyongyang’s warning, it thus seems that Lee Myung Bak heeded it as reality in his decision to withhold resumption of the psychological warfare campaign. The decision may have also been influenced by his desire to keep the South Korean markets stable, which were rattled significantly in the days following the report’s release.
South Korea also promised to heighten its naval presence and commence new joint-exercises with the U.S. as another element of its response strategy to the Cheonan sinking. Late last month Seoul carried out a much publicized unilateral anti-submarine exercise, and a joint operation with the U.S. was moved forward by a month. Predictably, North Korea responded to these moves by saying that it would cancel accords with the South designed to prevent clashes at their military border, and warned of prompt physical strikes if any South Korean vessels entered the disputed area off the west coast of the peninsula. It appears North Korea’s harsh tone may have again paid off to a degree as South Korea and the U.S agreed last week to postpone the joint naval exercise. Chinese intervention may also have helped influence this decision, as it called upon the U.S-ROK alliance to cancel or drastically reduce the scale of the exercise.
For North Korea’s part, it too seems to have u-turned on some of its threatened responses – particularly in the case of the joint DPRK-ROK Kaesong Industrial Complex venture. On May 27 North Korea promptly threatened to block all cross-border traffic to the Complex. Of course, such a move would have been very self-defeating, as it employs some 43,000 North Korean workers and brings the North millions of dollars worth of badly needed revenue each year. Not surprisingly, just days after making this threat North Korea made clear that it had no intention of acting on it, instead advising South Korea that it intended to keep the project open. For its part, South Korea has had to tread very carefully with regards to the Kaesong complex, due to the potential risk of having its nationals taken hostage by North Korea should tensions further rise. In the end, mutual restraint prevailed because escalation was in neither side’s interest.
Despite rumours that suggested Kim Jong Il had ordered North Korean forces to prepare for war, on-the-ground reports instead revealed that North Korea was not preparing for anything of the sort. Once again, the Pyongyang likely calculated that it would neither be in Seoul’s interests to pursue conflict nor for North Korea to initiate what would inevitably be a suicidal attack for Kim Jong Il’s dilapidated military forces.
On Sunday President Lee Myung Bak used a Memorial Day speech to outline his commitment to peace with North Korea. A day earlier he assured investors that there was “absolutely no possibility of a full-scale war”. It thus looks like (for the moment at least) that the potential for confrontation on the peninsula has been reduced significantly – or perhaps the danger was never all that great in the first place. From the policy u-turns described it seems that some of the threats made on both sides likely were more than just talk, but at the same time, restraint was viewed by both parties as preferable to escalation. Although the raising of the Cheonan at the United Nations could lead to further North Korean belligerency (as was the case after the issuance of UNSC 1874), it seems that for now, the status quo has once again prevailed on the peninsula