How to Respond if North Korea really Sank that SK Destroyer: ‘Sell’ Southern Strategic Restraint to China for Pressure on the North


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The sinking of a South Korean vessel, the Cheonan, has dominated the news here for weeks. Increasingly it looks like an external explosion caused the ship to break in two and sink rapidly. Suspicion is high that the only external force strong enough to sink a modern reinforced warship would have to a be a (presumably NK) mine or torpedo.

Predictably the conservative SK press has started the drumbeat for an aggressive response, including possible military action. President Lee of course is painted into a corner. A wholly unprovoked attack like this screams for blood, and the South Korean right is virulently anti-communist. If Lee does nothing, he’ll be hammered in the media and by his rivals within the governing party.

I sense a decisive moment building, akin to Austro-Hungary’s 1914 debate on how to respond to Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, or Bush’s post-9/11 reckoning. Here is a moment rich and justified in the aggressive rhetoric so beloved by conservatives the world over; try to imagine how Fox News would respond if the ship had been American. This could easily slide into nationalist hysteria and escalation. 9/11 too raised America’s temperature and pushed the US government to aggressive action in the Middle East. Only a few years later did it become apparent how much the US overreacted. I fear the same here. As Andrei Lankov (one of the best NK experts – read him if you don’t) notes, Lee doesn’t really have much room to do anything against the North that is significantly punishing, yet won’t cause a NK escalatory response, and then a dangerous tit-for tat downward spiral. I think the Korean Foreign Ministry sees this too.

In brief, the problems with any military response are:

1. North Koreans will suffer the costs of any retaliation, not the KPA/KWP elite likely responsible for the attack.

2. NK is heavily ‘bunkered’ and hardened. Any military response would likely be from the air and would require multiple sorties. This means more chances for accidents, shootdowns, and other ‘kinetic’ interactions that could lead to a spiral of violence.

3. Realistically, the US would have to political approve of SK action; this is unlikely.

4. The North is already so deprived and impoverished, it is hard to find a juicy target that would both hurt but not lead the KPA to call for war. (This is what would happen if the nuclear sites were bombed, so scratch that idea.)

5. My friend Brian Myers has convinced me that NK is such a paranoid, ‘national-defense state,’ that any attack is likely to provoke an escalated armed response. The KPA derives it prestige and legitimacy from its ability to defend the country – indeed this built into the constitution now as as the “military-first” policy – so it would be existentially important for it to hit back.

Hence it is extremely likely that any SK strike would be immediately countered and escalated. This is not like Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon or Syria. The North will almost certainly pursue escalation dominance into a quickening and widening cycle of hits and counter-hits. This is not a game the South really wants to play, especially given Seoul’s extreme exposure to North Korean artillery. So swallowing its anger out of sheer fear of escalation is my prediction of SK’s response.

So what to do? How about going to China and telling them, ‘we will hold off on a response in the interest of stability, but you really need to get serious with the pressure. No more bail-outs and trips to Beijing for the Northern elite.’ China doesn’t want a tit-for-tat, degenerative North-South spiral anymore than anyone else. Perhaps the South can use this to really push the Chinese hard on finally cutting off NK.

To be sure, the road to Pyongyang doesn’t go through Beijing. North Korea coldly plays China for gain as much as it does the US, Japan, and South Korea. But I have always thought that if NK ever faced a truly united front of the other 5 parties of the Six Party Talks (China, US, SK, Japan and Russia), the DPRK might finally be cornered. In this way, the relevant Six Party game theory is the stag-hunt. If only the 5 can coordinate and not defect on each other (NK’s constant goal), the can catch the big stag – change in NK. Strategic restraint on the Cheonan sinking might be a way to convince China to finally stop defecting over North Korea.

25 thoughts on “How to Respond if North Korea really Sank that SK Destroyer: ‘Sell’ Southern Strategic Restraint to China for Pressure on the North

  1. I have two quibbles with this analysis related to one major point: what if the ROK Navy erred at some point in this incident?

    1. Instead of an escalation dominance scenario, Pyongyang uses this incident to extract concessions from Seoul. This could perhaps be related to a North Korean nuke or missile test.

    2. What about a Gulf of Tonkin scenario where it just so happens, that what did happen is not even remotely similar to the speculation. I refer to the 2005 declassification of the second Tonkin incident papers. President Lee’s reluctance to act could be construed not as recognition of the strategic scenarios you mention, but as recognition, that any scrutiny would uncover the Navy’s incompetence or malfeasance. It’s also conceivable the North Koreans, or some unit or individuals, also erred. This incident could be a comedy of tragic errors that neither side wants to advertise.

    To that end, I want to know what that vessel really was doing. 44 personnel are still unaccounted for. I doubt the public will ever know, but I hope at least President Lee has the moral quality not to escalate on the basis of error.

    • I have seen no evidence to suggest Southern error. Certainly the government is not talking like that, which would paint them into a terrible corner should it eventually come out that way. And a Gulf of Tonkin scenario is even less likely – at the cost of 50 lives?! That would be a constitutional crisis of huge dimension.

  2. Absence of evidence is not evidence.

    And, there’s Seoul’s puzzling reticence to press its case by, say, taking its case to the UNSC. And, Pyongyang – and it might be coincidental or an example of how little ministries coordinate policy – is talking about tourism. I’m very reluctant – whether I’m an expat or a citizen – to trust any government that its spotty version of the episode is trustworthy. I want to honor those sailors, but I seriously wonder how a naval vessel of a middle-tier state can run into a mine or a torpedo set or launched by a pariah state. Either way, it’s not good news for the Navy. The best I can say is, that the North Koreans beat a force above their weight category. That isn’t a platform from which to make a convincing case for bluster, either.

    Anecdotally, I’ve never met a Korean who can’t bluff and bluster if when he/she knows she’s wrong. Either, Lee is being scrupulous, or he’s really holding a bad hand. I just want to know the full story before I advise Seoul to be itself.

  3. Good post and interesting to see that things haven’t changed much since I was a US Marine stationed on the Island of Okinawa in 1995/96. We had many similar incidents. I remember one in which NK Commandos dressed as SK soldiers, crossed over into SK and raised havoc. The US had to pull all troops back from that border region in order to not escalate the confrontation. The SK Army went in to finish the job. In fact the remaining two NK commandos were caught thanks to SK farmers who spotted the men. It was big news where I was, but I suspect not major news in the US as this story is now.

    Dr. Bob, have you done a comparative analysis as to how these incidents were handled in the 1990s vis a vis the present? If my memory serves me correct the SK government was to the “Right” back then. The president of SK back was Kim Young-sam right? Please enlightened. Also, could you please clarify the difference in attitudes between the two periods.

    I remember reading about the episode that I mentioned above in “The Herald Tribune” while on Okinawa so if you wanted to do some research, that might be a good place to start.

    Thanks.

  4. Dr. Bob:

    Question? I was trying to determine from the photo above if I could determine the blast pattern (internal versus external) but couldn’t (it would have been a very crude try anyway). Why don’t you take the photo (or other pictures of the Cheonan) to your university’s engineering department and ask them to review the blast pattern? It might very well be worth the exercise, providing of course, that the the photos are legit.

  5. Julio, Joseph:

    Interesting that you brought the 1996 sub and commando incident of 1996 up. According to Don Oberdorfer’s The Two Koreas, (1997, 2001) this was one of the first big strains on the alliance. Remember, Clinton’s team just brokered the “Agreed Framework” light water reactor deal and relations were (relatively speaking) “better than normal” with nK. Washington wanted to keep that momentum. Then the sub incident happened. Now the US is in the middle of a S-n military problem. Add to that that the ROK military was caught w/its pants down because the neither the Military, the Coast Guard, or the even the civilian police force discovered the incursion….a cabbie reported it and then the man hunt was on.

    The ROK Military was quite disappointed to find the US calling for calm and a “soft landing” scenario and it was leaked to the Joongang Ilbo in October that the ROK Military had a series of targets selected for retaliation. USFK was shocked to find out because they had “Wartime OPCON” and were not briefed about a retaliation scenario. By November, Nickolas Kristof reported in the NYT that some US officials thought the biggest headache in dealing with the Korean penn was in the South and not the North. Later that month at the annual APEC Clinton secured a promise from Kim YS to avoid provocations and reduce tensions in the KTO.

    Hope this Helps,
    Charlie
    the KimcheeGI

  6. An interesting perspective. A revenge strike seems to fit a just-world hypothesis but realistically, it’s going to kill the sons of NK families and cause the NK public to rally around their god king. They already think of themselves as a nation surrounded by enemies.

    Any chance the South has cruise missiles and knows the location of the summer mountain homes of the top NK leaders? Maybe laying waste to their loyalty booty might be the right kind of chin music.

    • China does not want this to get out of hand. It wants stability along its periphery so that it can continue to grow. It wants NK to hang on, but only just. It wants NK as a buffer against the US, SK, and Japan but not as a genuinely out-of-control rogue who feels like it can kill 50 people with impunity. China cares.

      • So then China will take action against NK (public or private). China will indeed rein them in correct? Punish NK for its actions in this case and make sure that they don’t do this in the future. Or I should say impress on NK that this sort of action is counter-productive to its overall design for the region.

        I think don’t think that the situation is going to get out of hand because retaliation is not an optioin.

        But also by your response you have sunk your own argument, I think.

        Why would China do this:

        “Strategic restraint on the Cheonan sinking might be a way to convince China to finally stop defecting over North Korea.”

        if they want this:

        “It wants NK to hang on, but only just. It wants NK as a buffer against the US, SK, and Japan”

        Also, doesn’t the NK state kill hundreds of it citizens with impunity? Prop up the Robert Mugabe regime in Zim (probably with direction from China)? Also as Kimchee GI noted, NK has been exhibiting this sort of behavior for a while.

        I agree that China wants to prosper and maintain stability along its periphery, but I also think that China knows/feels that/ it is the Master in the regioin so they might want to have it both ways. I am not an expert on China but this is my impression.

        I think that we should revisit this post the next time that NK gets near to becoming a genuine out-of-control rogue, again.

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  8. “On July 12, 2007, the second intercepted North Korean freighter was sunk in the Arabian Sea by torpedoes fired from a US submarine 100 miles southeast of the Iranian naval base-port of Chah Bahar.”
    If a Chinese-made Yu-3 type torpedo is presumed to have hit the Navy corvette, why don’t go and invade China.
    If they want to kill each other, let them do it till get tired and quit. They are in war since 1950.

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