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Tension in the Koreas: That Sinking Feeling

5 minute read
Bill Powell

After the South Korean government presented evidence that one of its naval vessels had been torpedoed by the North Koreans on March 26, with the loss of 46 lives, I sent an e-mail to a friend in Seoul. In it, I half-jokingly wondered whether U.S. and South Korean military planners had anything filed under “lightning strike to decapitate the regime in Pyongyang.” My friend’s response was unhesitating: “But no one here feels threatened by North Korea.”

A good portion of the South Korean population exists in a state of near unshakable denial. There can be no clearer act of war, no more flagrant abrogation of the 1953 armistice that established a truce on the peninsula, than the sinking of the Cheonan. And yet the resumption of hostilities is too terrible to contemplate — not just to the South Koreans but to the region. Just the idea of the potential for war hit Asian stock markets hard on May 25.

(See pictures from inside North Korea.)

The simple fact is that while the North’s ground forces are no match for those of South Korea or the U.S., Pyongyang has an armory of long-range missiles and artillery that could easily target the South’s largest population centers to cataclysmic effect. That leaves the South with the same old fallbacks of Cold War posturing, diplomacy and sanctions. (Even China, North Korea’s all-forgiving friend, seems to be privately indicating that it will not stand in the way of further U.N. sanctions against the North.)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who showed up in Seoul on May 26, spoke of the North’s “unacceptable provocation” and reminded the world of its “duty to respond.” In a speech two days earlier, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak suggested that a limit had been reached. Although Seoul has “time and again” looked the other way, he said, “now things are different” and North Korea “will pay a price.”

But things may not actually be that different. Part of the South’s plan of action is the resumption of propaganda broadcasts over loudspeakers at the DMZ — a Cold War – era staple in which the South yells nasty things at the soldiers on the other side. Another, according to the New York Times, is to “put new pressure” on North Korea by conducting joint naval exercises with the U.S. next month. But the point of the exercises is to “detect submarines of the kind suspected of sinking a South Korean warship,” and that doesn’t sound like pressure so much as practicing what both navies failed to do in the first place.

(See pictures of the iconography of Kim Jong Il.)

Similarly, while headlines everywhere proclaimed that the South was “cutting off” trade with the North, that was only true up to a point. In reality, while imposing other sanctions, the South wants the Kaesong Industrial Zone — just across the border in the North, home to more than 120 South Korean companies employing more than 43,000 North Korean workers and accounting for more than half of all inter-Korean trade — to remain in business. It’s Pyongyang that now threatens to close Kaesong and kick out all the South Korean factory managers there. And the North, in response to similar moves from the South, has also announced that it will ban South Korean ships from its territorial waters, cut off its airspace to commercial travel and sever the limited communication channels that exist.

Both realpolitik and economic reality make caution imperative for South Korea. It’s a rich trading nation that, with remarkable seamlessness, has shifted its focus from the U.S. to China, Pyongyang’s chief patron and now the largest customer on the planet for all the good things South Korean companies export. So while Seoul must get tough with the North, it cannot get too tough.

Yet there’s a big risk in that. The “calibrated signals” (as one Pentagon planner calls them) now being sent by Seoul and Washington need to be read properly by Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader, and his military advisers in Pyongyang. But is it clear to Kim how many South Korean soldiers, airmen or sailors he can kill without triggering the war that no one wants? Had the Cheonan‘s entire crew of 104 been killed, would the reaction from Seoul and its friends have been any different? (Hint: no.) And if not 104, what about 1,004? What’s the line that Kim cannot cross without eliciting something more than another round of sanctions? I bet he doesn’t have a clue. And that’s scary.

According to North Korean defectors in Seoul, Pyongyang has already instructed its people to prepare for “combat.” Kim is old, ailing and, by most accounts, desperately trying to install his son as his successor. The most plausible explanation for the Cheonan attack is that it puffs up the Kim clan in the eyes of the North Korean military, which is the key to ensuring a smooth succession. For all our sakes, let’s hope it worked, so he doesn’t feel the need to pull another lethal stunt. With the South — understandably — not having the stomach for a real fight, I bet a nuclear-armed Kim & Co. believe they can get away with damn near anything these days.

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