Features | Security | East Asia

DPRK Hardliners Sink Talks?

As North Korea warns of war, Patrick Cronin asks if Pyongyang hardliners are trying to scupper their own country’s diplomacy.

By Patrick Cronin for

The official investigation is over. After weeks of careful technical review, an expert team of South Korean, US and European investigators believe that a North Korean torpedo blew in half and sunk a South Korean Navy corvette on March 26. The torpedo not only struck its immediate intended target (killing 46 sailors in the process), but has also undermined planned nuclear arms talks.

On Thursday, officials in Seoul released critical evidence with photos of the recovered wreckage showing colossal damage to the keel. The Ministry of National Defense simulated striking the ROKS Cheonan near the ship’s gas turbine room—a strike that split the vessel in two on a snowy night near the island of Baengnyeong, at the Northern Limit Line between South and North Korea.

Long before the final report was released, Pyongyang took to the airwaves to denounce the accusation as a fabrication and threatened hostilities. Exploiting an absence of incontrovertible evidence—namely a smoking torpedo shaft—North Korea resorted to brutal form not seen for some time.

Although there have been numerous provocations and violations of the Armistice Agreement, the sinking of Cheonan is the worst since the reign of Kim Il-Sung. A 1983 bombing in Rangoon, which was an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan, left 17 senior officials dead, including 3 cabinet ministers, while the 1987 bombing of a Korean Airline Boeing 707 killed all 115 people aboard.

What’s most striking about the torpedo report is the restraint shown by South Korea, now a mature and prosperous democracy. At one time, Seoul might have simply wished to hit back quickly. But this time they realized there was too much to lose and too little to gain from such a response.

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What happens now is, of course, likely to be hotly debated. Further suspension of the Six Party Talks is likely for a time, even though this punishment would create no pain for North Korea. Indeed, torpedoing of the talks may well have been the real target all along.

Three possible motives come to mind. One is that Kim Jong-il, under pressure to return to the bargaining table, but determined not to relinquish his nuclear insurance policy, ordered an attack to ensure that a new round of diplomacy would not gain momentum. This would buy more time for the ongoing leadership transition that has apparently begun in North Korea.

A second possible motive is that the North Korean Navy and Special Forces, antsy for an opportunity to humiliate an increasingly capable South Korean Navy, saw a chance to attack and deny, understanding that any escalation would be limited because democratic South Korea and its ally the United States would want to avoid a conflict. Last November, tensions mounted after a two-minute naval skirmish off the west coast of Korea left one of North Korea’s navy vessels on fire and nearly destroyed.

But there’s a third possibility behind the torpedo incident. Even to this day, senior Chinese officials are convinced that hardliners in Pyongyang orchestrated the Rangoon bombing in order to scuttle secret diplomatic negotiations in Beijing between US and North Korean diplomats. It’s entirely possible that history has repeated itself.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is demonstrating a shrewd policy of firmness and reassurance by fully backing US ally South Korea. At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is exhibiting exquisite timing by arriving in Tokyo to reach accord over a simmering basing dispute with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

We may never know the full truth behind the torpedo attack until the day when North Korean archives are open to the public. Perhaps it was indeed Kim Jong-il himself who wanted to undermine pressure to return to the Six Party Talks. But regardless of the reason for the torpedo attack, cautious restraint and alliance solidarity remain the best policy course. When the North Korean regime eventually does transition—and perhaps collapse—it will be Seoul that will be in the strongest position to help bring about a new peace.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asian-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.