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The Cheonan Albatross

Riding out the wake of the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, it is a relief that so far there have been no further military incidents and tragic loss of life. Small steps are being made by North and South Korea to mend their frayed relations. Most recently the Red Cross offices of North and South Korea agreed to restart family reunions at the jointly operated Mt. Kumgang resort in the north. Yet the Cheonan incident continues to hang like an albatross upon efforts to improve inter-Korea relations. In the first meeting between North and South Korean military officials in two years, 9/30/2010, the South demanded an apology for the Cheonan sinking. The North replied by demanding to conduct its own inspection of the evidence. The meeting ended without results and without agreement to meet again.

There was speculation that President Jimmy Carter’s successful visit to North Korea in August to free a U.S. citizen, detained for crossing into North Korea illegally, might also usher in a thaw in U.S.-North Korea relations. Indeed Carter reported that North Korea wants to make peace. But so far its proposals to restart the six-party talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, as conveyed to Carter, have been rejected by the U.S., pending apology by Pyongyang for torpedoing the Cheonan. Yet, Pyongyang vehemently denies any involvement in the incident which cost the lives of 46 sailors.

The Obama administration’s insistence that North Korea confess to the Cheonan sinking echoes the Bush administration’s dictum that “bad behavior” by North Korea should not be rewarded with bilateral diplomacy with the United States. President Bush believed that eventually China would see it in its interests to join forces with South Korea and the U.S. to reign in its neighbor. But the Asia of the Bush years is not the Asia of today. The Cheonan incident brought to light a far more assertive China—an economically and militarily powerful country which clearly opposes measures by the Lee and Obama administrations which threaten to destabilize its ally.

A diplomatic offensive by the U.S. and South Korea to seek a United Nations condemnation of North Korea for the Cheonan sinking came to an abrupt halt last summer as China made it clear that it did not support South Korea’s accusations that North Korea had attacked the Cheonan, and moreover that it objected to continued war games in the West Sea and in particular to the introduction of a U.S. aircraft carrier into the area. While disagreement between China and the U.S. regarding Korean affairs is nothing new, the rancor over the Cheonan dispute indicates that the U.S. regarded China’s position as outright betrayal. Incensed at China’s refusal to condemn North Korea, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told her hosts in Beijing last May that their ally, North Korea, was a “liar.” Then at meetings with President Hu Jintao at the G20 Summit in Toronto last June, President Obama criticized China for being “blind” about the Cheonan, and implied that China was not acting in its best interests by supporting North Korea.

China’s actions indicate that it regards stability on the Korean peninsula as paramount to its interests and that it sees further sanctions on North Korea coupled with ongoing war games by the U.S. and South Korea in the West Sea as major threats to the status quo. With China’s handwriting all over it, the United Nations Security Council statement of July 9, 2010 was neutral on the question of what or who caused the sinking of the Cheonan and emphasized instead “the importance of preventing further such attacks or other hostilities against that country [South Korea] or in the region, calling for full adherence to the Korean Armistice Agreement and encouraging the settlement of outstanding issues through a resumption of dialogue.” If the Lee and Obama administrations were counting on a compliant China to follow their hardline approach to dealing with North Korea, it is time to inject a new realism into such policies before they sink under the weight of the Cheonan debacle.

With the world’s second largest economy, the world’s largest standing army and second largest naval service, China is today the most powerful nation in Asia, and it is acting the part, asserting its interests, and making its own rules. It has pushed back on the U.S. and South Korea at the United Nations over the Cheonan; it is pushing back on Japan’s territorial claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands; its naval presence is expanding in the region; and it is resisting pressure by the U.S. to allow the value of its currency to rise. Its leverage over the U.S. in Korean affairs is that it enjoys diplomatic and economic relations with both North and South Korea. Thus, in the absence of diplomatic relations with North Korea the U.S. has been forced to rely upon China to broker the six party talks. Ironically, to check China’s influence on the Korean peninsula, and in the region, North Korea’s proposal “to restart negotiations on a comprehensive peace treaty with the United States and South Korea and on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as Carter reported in the New York Times, 9/16/2010, may be Washington’s best option. But first it must let the Cheonan rest.

Without international support for further isolating North Korea, anti-submarine war exercises in the West Sea and perfunctory threats of more U.S. sanctions serve only to push China and North Korea closer together. North Korean General Secretary Kim Jong Il traveled to China in August, his second visit in 4 months during which the parties reaffirmed their friendship and bilateral relationship, not only for today, but for generations to come. In apparent support of North Korea’s leadership succession plans, which were put into motion during the Workers Party Congress in September, President Hu Jintao declared “it is the common historic responsibility of the two sides [China and North Korea] to advance the friendship along with the times and convey it down through generations to come” reported the Korean Central News Agency.

In South Korea the Lee administration is facing mounting public pressure to find an exit from its strategy of demanding an apology from North Korea for the Cheonan as condition for dialogue on other issues. The final report of the Joint International Group (JIG) on the incident has left 40% of the South Korean public unconvinced of its accuracy, according to a poll conducted by Realmeter in September, and has prompted the opposition parties and civic groups to call for a new investigation. Meanwhile, a virtual gag order on the surviving sailors of the Cheonan tragedy has prevented the only immediate witnesses of the event from telling their stories.

Of particular concern is that Sweden, the only truly neutral participant in the JIG investigation, has distanced itself from the conclusion that North Korea must have fired the torpedo that sunk the Cheonan. A senior official who had participated in the JIG investigation said: “The Swedish investigative team indicated that it was not in a position to express its position on the findings regarding the responsible party in the Cheonan sinking,” according to the Hankyoreh, 9/14/2010. While the investigation team leaders of the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia signed the final report as full participants in the JIG stating, “I concur with the findings and conclusions of this report,” the Swedish representative, on the other hand, signed the report with the caveats that Sweden’s participation was in “in support” of the JIG and that he concurred with the conclusions “relative to the Swedish team’s participation.”

Sweden’s apparent reservations regarding North Korea’s culpability are supported by an independent investigation conducted by Russia. Although its report was not published, the Russian investigators rejected the JIG’s conclusion that North Korea was the culprit, according to the Hankyoreh, 7/27/2010. They attributed the sinking to an accidental running aground by the Cheonan which led to the detonation of a mine causing the vessel to sink, the Hankyoreh report said. Inquiring of a “well placed Russian friend” why the report had not been made public, Donald Gregg, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, was told “Because it would do much political damage to President Lee Myung-bak and would embarrass President Obama.” (International Herald Tribune 8/31/2010). Moreover in their review of the JIG’s findings, published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, July 12, 2010, scholars J. J. Suh, Director of the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University, and Seunghun Lee, Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia, found the conclusions to be so flawed that they “recommend that an impartial board be formed to verify the integrity of the JIG data.”

Whatever the truth behind the Cheonan tragedy may be, it is unlikely that the U.S. and South Korea, and for that matter, North Korea, will retract their positions. But fortunately it is possible to agree to disagree, and then get on with the business of diffusing tensions. That can and should be done now. After all, the mother of all disagreements between North and South Korea – over which side started the Korean War – did not prevent the tremendous progress made towards peaceful reconciliation over the past decade including agreements on economic cooperation, cultural exchanges, and family reunions. In other words, for Koreans, regardless of how the Korean War was started, another war is not an option, under any circumstance.

It has been nearly two years since the six party talks collapsed and during this time inter-Korea relations and U.S.-North Korea relations have been spiraling out of control with no good ending in sight. North Korea is willing to reopen dialogue. It says the six party talks have been “sentenced to death, but not yet executed,” according to Carter. They deserve a reprieve. The alternative is to allow the re-polarization of Northeast Asia along Cold War lines, as they were drawn 60 years ago when war broke out on the Korean peninsula. That should be unacceptable to all parties concerned, regardless of their differences over the Cheonan. It’s time to start talking again.

Paul Liem is Board Chairperson of the Korea Policy Institute.


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