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The sinking of a South Korean Warship will not lead to all-out war

Commentary, 21 May 2010
As the South Korean government formally accuses Pyongyang of sinking it's warship in March, it is also resisting popular demands for retaliation. Instead Seoul will bolster efforts to exact international penalties on North Korea.

As the South Korean government formally accuses Pyongyang of sinking it's warship in March, it is also resisting popular demands for retaliation. Instead Seoul will bolster efforts to exact international penalties on North Korea.

By Sung-oh Hong for

South Korean Flag

South Korea's Defence Ministry formally charged North Korea on Thursday 20 May with the attack on the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy ship that killed 46 sailors on 26 March. The accusation was immediately denied by North Korea, with its usual mixture of bluster and threats. North Korea's National Defence Commission, chaired by the country's leader Kim Jong-il, denied any involvement in the ship's sinking and warned of an 'all-out war' if the South responded militarily. Pyongyang also offered to send its own investigators to South Korea to examine the evidence gathered by a team of international investigators. The offer is, of course, purely rhetorical, since North and South Korea have stopped all talks, and are unlikely to resume them anytime soon. So, the usual impasse prevails.

Evidence points to Pyongyang

Immediately after the ship was sunk, there were plenty of alternative explanations for the disaster: that the ship struck 'friendly' mines planted by the South Korean Navy back in the 1970s, that the vessel suffered a catastrophic malfunction, a collision, or even that the Cheonan was caught in the cross-fire during an exercise with the US Navy (which did take place at that time, and in roughly the same location). All these explanations have now been discarded.

And for good reasons. Sensitive earthquake measurement instruments indicate that there was a strong explosion equal to approximately 300kg TNT shortly before the ship sank. In addition, Korea made a point of inviting foreign investigation teams from the US, Britain, Sweden and Australia, precisely in order to eliminate the pernicious rumours that the ship was lost as a result of a US Navy misfire. The conclusions of the investigation are, therefore, fairly persuasive. What is still unclear is why North Korea resorted to this attack.

Immediately after the sinking of the ship, North Korean propaganda was quoted as saying that '(our) Great North Korea military smashed South Korean Navy and they are in panic now', even though Pyongyang officially denied any involvement in the attack.


But, why launch such an unprovoked attack? Internal North Korean political considerations and the current stalemate in the talks between North Korea and Seoul and Washington may provide some explanation. First, the attack could be a retaliation for what the North Koreans regard as a military humiliation in the same spot of waters last year. On 10 November 2009, and in response to a North Korean ship which encroached on a disputed stretch of water demarcations, two South Korean vessels opened fire, inflicting serious damage to the North Korean vessel.  This pattern of retaliation is not unprecedented: North Korea retaliated for similar events in 1999 and in 2002.

Second, Pyongyang may have used this conflict to highlight the capacities of the heir apparent to Kim Jong Il, the dictator's younger son, Kim Jung-Eun. Although Kim Jong-Il is believed to suffer from serious health problems, his son's position as a next leader is very weak because of his young age and inexperience. Moreover, he is relatively unknown to the public; therefore, the next leader's position needs to be secured as soon as possible. Aside from whether he was really engaged in the naval attack or not, such a warlike action would be useful to consolidate his legitimacy within the ranks of the military. Kim Jong-Il's rise to power was also accompanied by similar state-sponsored atrocities.  During the 1980s, Kim Jong Il was apparently behind the Burma assassination operation against the then South Korean President; this was viewed as part of his attempt to consolidate power within the North Korean defence community and, in the perverse logic of the North Korean leadership, a similar 'triumph' for the dictator's son may make some sense.

Thirdly, this type of 'victory' is useful to keep the North Korean public loyal. Since implementing a botched currency reform in late November 2009, North Korea has faced a desperate economic situation, with few expectations of any relief in the near future. Riots and other public disturbances were reported in the immediate wake of the fiscal reform. Any show of disloyalty to the central authorities is extremely unusual in North Korea and shows how serious this situation has become. Pyongyang may have calculated that raising the military confrontation with South Korea could provide a useful diversion at home.


North Korea may have also intended to warn that it is not prepared to accept any political conditions in return for economic help from South Korea. During the last two South Korean presidencies, North Korea was given substantial amounts of South Korean aid. However, Seoul's new conservative regime has tied economic support to progress on the nuclear issue. North Korea cannot bear long-term negotiation on such matters, partly because Pyongyang has no intention of submitting to political conditions, but also because it needs the economic aid urgently.  North Korea was recently compelled to ask for more support from China; it offered in exchange mining concessions rights and a variety of other economic advantages. By raising the military stakes, Pyongyang may be calculating that South Korea could be pushed into offering economic aid, without any progress on the nuclear dispute. Of course, none of this makes sense by any Western standards of logic. But the problem is precisely that North Korea observes no such logic.

Having published the results of its inquiry, the South Korean government is now facing popular demands for a retaliation. But the South Korean authorities are certain to resists such pressure, especially since Seoul is preparing to host the G20 summit this year, and particularly since South Korean president Lee Myung-bak is determined to showcase South Korea as a modern and progressive economic and political power. Instead of reacting violently, Seoul will likely use the UN Security Council to bring pressure on the North. Although this is likely to have only a limited affect, South Korea is certain to try to mobilise international support for new penalties on the North.

The result of the incident is unlikely to affect the Six Party Talks over North Korea's nuclear programme, because Seoul's priority is regional stability. However, the real influence remains in the hands of China, the only country which is directly bankrolling the North Korean regime. And, at least for the moment, the Chinese are keeping quiet.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

See also

 RUSI's Alexander Neill gives expert analysis on Sky news

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