SEOUL – After a painstaking investigation, South Korea is pointing the finger of blame at North Korea for the sinking of its warship, the Cheonan, on March 26. The debate about how to respond is complicated by the fact that the Cheonan’s sinking does not seem to be a stand-alone event, but was, instead, part of a change in North Korea’s general pattern of behavior. Indeed, North Korea has become increasingly bold and impetuous ever since Kim became ill (probably from a stroke) in August 2008.
In the past, top North Korean leaders tended to calculate carefully the costs and benefits when they acted to put pressure on the outside world. And they were inclined to play only one of their “threat” cards at a time. But in April and May 2009, they threw diplomatic caution to the wind, launching a long-range rocket (as well as various missiles) and conducting a second nuclear test – all in the space of several weeks.
As soon as the international community reacted, by adopting United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874, North Korea quickly shifted to a charm offensive aimed at the United States and South Korea. The authorities released two American journalists and a South Korean worker whom they had seized in August 2009 on charges of violating North Korean law.
But when the North Korean regime realized that smile diplomacy did not get it whatever it was they wanted, the country’s rulers shifted back to hostility. This time, the authorities froze South Korean real estate in the Geumgang Mountain tourist zone and, most seriously of all, attacked the Cheonan. The regime even dispatched two spies to Seoul to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-level North Korean official ever to defect to South Korea.
I believe that this change in North Korea’s pattern of behavior is profoundly related to recent fundamental changes there. First, Kim Jong-il and his third son, Kim Jong-un, may have become much more confident as a result of North Korea’s emergence as a de facto nuclear state. They seem to believe that possession of nuclear weapons provides them with far wider room for strategic and tactical boldness. After all, they achieved what they wanted in defiance of enormous international pressure, and even succeeded in transferring nuclear technology to Syria several years ago without being punished. Given such a run of successful gambles, why be timid?
The second change concerns Kim’s successor. North Korea’s new boldness may reflect Kim Jong-il’s wish to polish the 26-year-old Kim Jong-un’s image as a strong and decisive leader. Or, it may be that all of the provocations that have followed Kim Jong-il’s illness may be the work of Kim Jong-un himself. In other words, the process of power transfer may be progressing much faster than anyone outside of North Korea has guessed.
Finally, long-term mismanagement and international sanctions have pushed the North Korean economy to the brink of collapse. As a result, the regime may be trying to divert people’s attention from internal difficulties and push them to unite behind the emerging new leader.
The attack on the Cheonan may have been particularly useful in cementing the regime’s hold on the military, which felt disgraced by North Korea’s inept performance in a confrontation with the South Korean navy near the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea in November 2009. But, compared to the more fundamental factors discussed above, I believe that this is probably a secondary motive for the attack on the Cheonan.
The problem is that all three factors – nuclear-armed boldness, the succession, and economic malaise – will continue to influence North Korea’s behavior for the time being. Without a strong and internationally coordinated response to the sinking of the Cheonan, such reckless provocations are not only likely to continue, but may become more frequent.
Thus, South Korea and the international community must respond firmly. A joint South Korea-US military exercise near the Demilitarized Zone or a joint anti-submarine exercise at the Northern Limit Line should be considered. A UN Security Council resolution denouncing North Korea’s brutal attack on the Cheonan must be an essential part of any international diplomatic response. Making North Korea pay a high economic cost for its rash behavior should be considered as well.
All of these options are, however, short-term responses, and will likely be insufficient to bringing about any serious change in North Korea. A more fundamental, long-term strategy is needed to face the new reality and achieve lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
One of the messages that Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered to Kim Jong-il at their bilateral summit on May 5 – concerning North Korea’s need to launch serious economic reform and open up to the world – has provided a clue as to how to move forward. So far, the international community has focused mainly on the immediate concern of denuclearizing North Korea. But this is merely addresses the symptom, not the disease. It is past time for the international community – particularly China, Russia, the US, Japan, and South Korea – to devote similar diplomatic effort to persuading and pressuring North Korea to reform and open its economy.
The world must develop a more carefully calibrated policy toward North Korea, one aimed at simultaneously implementing denuclearization and economic reform. The added benefit of such an approach is that it is far more likely to gain Chinese support than today’s single-minded focus on denuclearization.