The international team investigating the sinking of the Cheonan released its report last week, alleging North Korean responsibility for the attack. With the outcome of the investigation widely accepted by the international community, condemnation of Pyongyang has been nearly universal. As I explained in last week’s analysis, both South Korea and its allies have few avenues to reprimand the DPRK. Nonetheless, talk of U.N sanctions and the resumption of South Korea’s psychological warfare campaign has infuriated Pyongyang, which has threatened to retaliate with ‘a sacred war involving the whole nation’, using an ‘indiscriminate punishment of our style’. While this isn’t the first time North Korea has threatened to respond with war or even use nuclear weapons, its release in the context of the Cheonan incident must not be dismissed lightly – especially given signs that Kim Jong Il has instructed the DPRK military to get ready for combat.
Given the current uncertainties surrounding succession, Kim Jong-Il will not want to look weak to the DPRK military – the group holding the most significant power broker in North Korea. By not following through on at least some of the type of actions detailed in North Korea’s warnings, Kim could risk being seen as ineffectual – potentially causing problems for the planned succession to his son Kim Jong-Eun. Kim’s leadership over the coming days and weeks will thus be informed by this context. Similarly, Lee Myung Bak has stressed that South Korea ‘will not tolerate any provocative act by the North and will maintain the principle of proactive deterrence’. He too will be under pressure to show strong leadership, especially in advance of the June 2, 2010 local elections in South Korea. In this context, it seems there are several potential flashpoints that could lead to escalation.
Firstly there is the complex issue of how to address the incident at the UN. On May 24, Ban Ki Moon condemned North Korea, and expressed hope that when South Korea brings this incident before the UN Security Council, swift action will be taken. Should a new round of sanctions be approved, and in light of its May 20 warning, North Korea may find itself obliged to at the very least intensify its military presence around the disputed northern limit line and engage in provocative acts – which in turn could escalate into conflict through the stern responses promised by South Korea. It will be up to the UN Security Council to approve a new round of sanctions. While most of the international community has accepted the Cheonan report, China has so far remained neutral, calling for all parties to ‘calmly and properly handle the issue and avoid escalation of tension’ – even after two days of intensive lobbying by Hillary Clinton in Beijing. Given the recent visit to China by Kim Jong Il last month and Beijing’s vested interests in maintaining the regime in Pyongyang, this should come as no surprise.
China is going to have to make a choice to either supporting North Korea– a regime it has a long bloodline history with and country in which it has significant economic interests, or South Korea, a strategic partner which has become one of China’s major trading partners. Complicating matters is that if it vetoes sanctions based on credible and scientific international findings, Beijing’s ever improving international aspirations could be damaged, due to making it appear willing to support unprovoked aggression and killing by a state considered by many as a pariah. Alternatively China could abstain from the vote, but this would mean any sanctions would pass, perhaps leading to an escalatory response from North Korea.
The second potential flashpoint relates to South Korea’s psychological warfare campaign. Initially stopped in 2004 as part of a North-South agreement to suspend propaganda across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), South Korea have decided to erect facilities along the 150 miles of the MDL and resume both anti-regime radio and loudspeaker broadcasts, to make North Korea recognize that its illegal activities will definitely have consequences’. In addition, reports today suggest Seoul will drop propaganda leaflets in North Korea detailing the Cheonan findings and a statement criticizing North Korea’s behavior. In response, North Korea Monday warned that it would fire on and destroy such facilities, with South Korea in turn stating that it would view such a move as ‘an act of military provocation and would merit the exercise of self-defense under international laws.’ Without cool headedness on both sides, this potential flashpoint could raise tensions significantly.
Thirdly, South Korea has said it is preparing to fully participate in the U.S.-led ship interdicting Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), in an attempt to stem the proliferation of North Korean weapons of mass destruction. While South Korea is already obliged to interdict suspect North Korean cargoes as a result of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, a more proactive approach will be deemed provocative by the DPRK, which could raise the level of its military responses to any attempted interdiction.
Fourthly, South Korea has banned North Korean vessels from entering its territorial waters, including the straits between the southern island of Jeju and the mainland. Adding three to four days onto journeys for DPRK vessels headed from East coast to West coast ports, this blockade of sorts could be one that North Korea may attempt to flout early on. This has the potential of exacting potentially aggressive South Korean responses, given Lee Myung Bak’s statement that ‘if our territorial waters…are violated, we will immediately exercise our right of self-defense’.
Fifthly and finally, North Korea has announced that it will cut all ties with South Korea. A South Korean official today stated that Pyongyang has already acted on part of this threat, cutting all marine communications between the two Koreas. This greatly increases the potential for misunderstandings and accidents, and given the charged atmosphere, also the chances of military escalation.
Where escalation will lead in any of these areas is hard to predict. All-out war is neither in the interest of North or South Korea. But it has been avoided in the aftermath of other similarly provocative incidents; the DPRK’s bombing of flight 858, two assassination attempts on South Korean presidents in 1968 and 1983, and after the bloody 1976 ‘axe incident’.
So far things, have played out in a relatively calm fashion. Despite a North Korean threat to expel all South Koreans from the Kaesong Industrial complex, it appears that Pyongyang is not actually acting on this. Even though South Korea’s psychological campaign has begun, there has been no military response thus far from North Korea. And despite reports that Kim Jong Il has personally instructed the military to prepare for war, troops do not appear to be on alert at the moment. So it seems North Korea is being careful not to escalate the situation in any areas where it could really cost them.
Nevertheless, North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons might today make it more confident in responding with force to any further South Korean responses This is especially so given Kim Jong Il’s need to show strong leadership in advance of his succession. In the highly charged atmosphere, further conflict cannot be ruled out.