Leon V. Sigal

Sinking strategy

In the bellicose flare-up over the attack on a South Korean warship by the North, what has been lacking is serious discussion

By Leon V. Sigal
May 28, 2010

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FOR THE PAST year, the Obama administration pursued a policy of “strategic patience’’ toward North Korea in the erroneous belief that sanctions would make Pyongyang more pliable. Instead of scuttling that policy in the wake of North Korea’s deadly attack on the South Korean naval warship Cheonan, the administration is now raising the stakes by supporting South Korea’s efforts to punish North Korea with more sanctions and to adopt “proactive deterrence.’’

Yet punishment, even if justifiable, will not prevent another Cheonan any more than it has stopped North Korea from making more nuclear weapons. Worse, blockading North Korean shipping, stepping up naval patrols, and threatening to preempt militarily risks more firefights. Only negotiations might avert dangerous escalation.

The Cheonan attack was the latest test of wills between North and South over Korea’s contested territorial waters. At the end of the Korean War, a sea boundary was unilaterally imposed north of the Military Demarcation Line on land. That Northern Limit Line is not recognized internationally and has long been rejected by the North.

In 2007, the South signed a wide-ranging accord with North Korea’s Kim Jong Il that sidestepped the issue of the maritime border but pledged “to discuss ways of designating a joint fishing area in the West [Yellow] Sea to avoid accidental clashes and turning it into a peace area and also to discuss measures to build military confidence.’’ Within days of Lee Myung Bak’s election as president two months later, his transition team backed away from the summit accord.North Korea’s response was to build up its artillery near the boundary. It also accused South Korea of violating its territory in the West Sea, and launched short-range missiles into the contested area, a provocative reminder of the risks of leaving the issue unresolved. At the same time, Pyongyang urged that the armistice agreement be replaced with a permanent peace treaty as part of six-party talks on denuclearization, a step Seoul resisted.

Throughout 2009 a war of words escalated, and on Nov. 9 the two navies exchanged hostile fire. After a North Korean patrol boat crossed the Northern Limit Line, the South fired warning shots. The North returned fire and the South fired some 50 rounds, crippling the vessel and causing an unknown number of casualties. The North Korean high command demanded an apology from the South, which did not respond.

Amid media talk about avenging the attack, on Nov. 26, by North Korean accounts, Kim Jong Il ordered his high command to train a “do-or-die unit of sea heroes.’’ His November order was executed with the March 26 attack on the Cheonan.

Many officials in Seoul are still determined to show who is boss on the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, that is North Korea’s game, one it plays all too brutally.

Punitive action has been met tit-for-tat by the North in the past. Recall that Pyongyang’s reaction to Security Council sanctions in July 2006 for its missile tests was to conduct a nuclear test. Its response to tougher UN sanctions in June 2009 for its second nuclear test was to reprocess more plutonium.

In reaction to new sanctions, North Korea could restart its reactor at Yongbyon to generate more plutonium. Negotiations, whether in six-party talks or bilaterally, are the only way to keep that from happening. If the two Koreas refuse to hold talks, the six-party talks provide a forum for peace talks to defuse the current crisis.

The only way to make the waters off Korea safer and stop further nuclear arming is to try negotiating in earnest. North Korean acceptance of responsibility for sinking the Cheonan would be a suitable starting point.

Leon V. Sigal is director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at Social Science Research Council in New York and author of “Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.’’

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