South Korea has found the smoking gun, a torpedo, that sank its warship Cheonan March 26, killing 46 sailors.
Because its dear leader Kim John Il is considered mentally unstable and North Korean leaders for the umpteenth time are threatening war against South Korea should its neighbor to the south retaliate, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has told the leaders of both nations with an audience intended for China the U.S. stands resolutely behind South Korea.
And China, who holds the key to all the squabbles between the two Koreas, is asking the parties to calm down by playing the Rodney King card of "can't we all just get along?"
Well, no. This latest crisis, potentially the most serious since the armistice that ended the Korean war hostilities at the DMZ in July 1953, tells us much about the four nations, with a nervous Japan sitting on the sidelines biting its nails.
In my ever-searching quest to explain complex issues in simple terms, the best way to shout "Hey, I get it," is to examine the positions of each nation, one at a time.
The government issued a 400-page report that concluded the torpedo, dredged by salvage teams, that sank the warship was a perfect match of the CHT-02D torpedoes made in North Korea and sold abroad. Intelligence reports claimed all of North Korea's submarines were out of port the day of the explosion. “It was either the North Koreans, or it was the Martians,” one unnamed South Korean investigator told The Economist, a British publication.
The response by President Lee Myung-Bak announced Monday was the strongest yet by his government but otherwise measured in terms that most countries would consider an act of war. Calling North Korea "the most belligerent regime in the world," Lee said the incident will be referred to the UN Security Council, that South Korea at long last will join an international fleet (the Proliferation Security Initiative) patrolling Korean waters for shipment of nuclear materials, cutting off shipping lanes for North Korea cargo ships and resume a "psychological warfare" program stopped in 2004 that infuriates the north with propaganda leaflets and air horn messages to flee the Pyongyang dictatorship Lee also said all economic ties with the north would be suspended except a joint venture industrial complex called Kaesong.
While the response may appear puny and falls short of a military strike proposed by hawkish South Koreans, the Lee government is pro-business and does not want liberal opponents to accuse his party of using this latest incident as a political ploy. Local elections are scheduled for June 2 followed by diplomatic meetings with the U.S., China and Japan in addition to a G20 summit in November. And, consider this: The senseless attack that killed 46 servicemen provoked few public demonstrations of anger. Again, The Economist quoting Brian Myers, who has spent a career writing about the Koreas, said there was more palpable outrage in 2002 when a U.S. army vehicle ran over two South Korean schoolgirls.
Guessing what North Korea will do at any given time is a fool's mission. Its only economic lifeline is the tunnel of aid pumped into the Pyongyang capital by China. Figure this one out: The regime called the Cheonan investigation a "fabrication" and threatened “all-out war” if new sanctions were imposed whenever the Security Council votes on the resolution proposed by South Korea, the U.S., Britain, Japan and Australia. At the same time, North Korea pulled out of six-party talks aimed to encourage the cash-strapped regime to abandoned its nuclear weapons in exchange for cash it so desperately needs. Other international sanctions have hit other sources of hard currency.
To western observers, the only thing that makes sense are the two militaries which fought together against the U.S. and South Korea during the Korean war. Which brings us to ...
The Cheonan report is as if a dagger was thrown at the Chinese to make a decision between the two Koreas which it has scrupulously avoided over the years. A senior official in Beijing reportedly called the incident “very unfortunate.” Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa visits Seoul Friday with Lee and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Kim, the North Korea leader, paid a visit to his comrades ahead of the Cheonan report and ostensibly reaffirmed the two countries' solidarity.
Western diplomatic observers quoted by The Economist and the New York Times suspect this latest crisis is exposing a riff between the ruling Chinese civilians in the Community Party and its military leaders. Even if China accepts most if not all of the findings in the report, the next hurdle will be what role it plays whether to veto or abstain the condemnation sanctions offered in the Security Council resolution. The crack between the ruling factions was first observed when North Korea tested a nuclear devise last year and followed in March by the sinking of the South Korean warship. While civilian leaders were puzzled, angered and frustrated, the military leaders see it as the North's natural reaction of threats it perceives from the U.S. and why it bullies the South. The military gets its way in some quarters. It dropped military-to-military contacts with the U.S. last year when the Obama administration sold weapons to Taiwan.
The Cheonan crisis is the best shot the Obama administration has had in any diplomatic measure to neutralize North Korea as well as a test case for how it handles China. It depends on whether China sides with the North with demands examining the report by its own people and avoid shifting the balance of power to the South in what many regard as the world's most alarming stand-off. “There is profound frustration with North Korean behavior and with the way in which it complicates China’s own security calculations,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Expectations on Secretary of State Clinton may be unrealistic as she spends hours wooing the Chinese to her position to undo more than a half century of allegiance between the Chinese and their ally North Korea. She reminded Beijing of South Korea’s economic heft and strategic importance.
Prime Minister Hatoyama has risked the future of his administration, citing the threat posed by North Korea as a justification when it came time for him to renege on his campaign pledge to remove an American helicopter marine base from Okinawa.
It boils down to this: Does Wen Jiaboa and Beijing believe Clinton's assertion that the U.S. is "resolute" in backing South Korea means the U.S. going to war if the situation escalates that far? Stay tuned.