The ICAS Lectures


The Cheonan Sinking:
What Happened, What May Happen, and What Must Not Happen

Eric A. McVadon

ICAS Spring Symposium

Humanity, Peace and Security
The Korean Peninsula Issues
May 18, 2010 1:30 PM -- 5:00 PM
United States House Rayburn Office Building Room B318
Captiol Hill, Washington, DC 20510

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422


Biographic Sketch & Links: Eric A. McVadon

The Cheonan Sinking:
What Happened, What May Happen, and What Must Not Happen

Rear Admiral Eric A. McVadon, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Expanded and Extended on 1 June 2010 from a Presentation at the ICAS Spring Symposium on 18 May 2010

The sinking of the South Korean navy ship ROKS Cheonan by a torpedo from a North Korean submarine was convincingly described in the report of an international investigation made public in Seoul on 20 May 2010. 1 This attack is justifiably viewed by many observers as tantamount to an act of war. It was an "unprovoked and unwarranted act" according to a U.S. spokesman 2 The Chinese are a notable exception, tardy in expressing condolences and continuing to talk for another week only of "caution and restraint," 3 even in the face of overwhelming evidence of North Korean culpability. Finally, in a late May visit to Seoul, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly hinted privately to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that China might be moving toward not opposing Lee's proposal to seek UN Security Council condemnation of the North Korean regime. 4 But all-including the Chinese, of course-would agree that the horrendous offense must not become an act that leads to war.

The issue as it has developed reflects all the complexity of the longstanding Korean Peninsula dilemma. Every carefully thought-out answer to the difficult issues is met with a resounding "Yes, but...." How can we achieve an outcome that (1) accomplishes satisfactory deterrence so as to prevent any future DPRK outrages and provides for defeat of the attackers if deterrence fails, (2) does not result in war or major conflict or chaos on the Korean Peninsula that has the potential to cause immeasurable loss of life, misery, and economic setback, (3) does not include or draw us closer to use of a nuclear device or other form of WMD, and (4) makes progress toward North Korea's transformation into a country or entity that will relinquish its nuclear weapons program and cease to be a potential source for proliferation to other states or non-state actors? In this author's view, number 4, the transformation of North Korea-or at least progress in that direction-is the goal we must not lose sight of as we deal with the other, admittedly important and even urgent questions.

Seoul, to its credit, undertook over almost two months an intense but deliberate and measured international inquiry to determine the cause of the late March sinking. Then, when an attack was shown to have occurred, the same commendable approach was employed to ascertain the identity of the wrongdoer and the nature of the attack. Then, the ROK government and its international supporters faced the arguably more difficult and dangerous challenge of determining how to be the "right-doers" in shaping the response. The DPRK denies all and boldly asserts that, if there are "punishment," "sanctions infringing on state interests," or retaliation, it will respond with "tough measures, including all-out war" 5 and asserts that South Korea has brought about circumstances in which "war may break out now." 6 Even if largely bluster, these words could not be ignored. Nevertheless, Seoul, with full support from Washington, has understandably responded with strong measures including breaking off most economic ties-halting aid and trade-as the Washington Post put it, 7 blocking North Korean shipping from South Korean waters, and an intent to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council.

Why does China tread more lightly and cautiously? Some observers suggest that China's behavior is inexplicable in light of undeniable evidence, that simply "Beijing continues to shield the loathsome regime of Kim Jong Il." 8 This author has witnessed the ups and downs of Chinese support for, and frustration and anger with, its North Korean ally, neighbor, and persistent troublemaker. Pyongyang has engaged in behavior deeply disturbing to Beijing, including most prominently nuclear and missile tests in 2006 and 2009. Beijing has long been pressed by the U.S. and others to exercise its significant leverage on Pyongyang. It has, however, generally taken a disconcertingly more measured approach than others desire.

The U.S., for example, wanted something swifter and more definitive from Beijing concerning the seeming admission of guilt in 2002 that Pyongyang had violated the 1994 Agreed Framework. Washington accused Pyongyang of acquiring materials useful for a program of production of highly enriched uranium, while its declared fissile plutonium production program was shut down. China felt it was premature to call the HEU-related equipment purchases and actions a program-with some of the scientifically trained pointing out that an HEU program (a formal organized effort) would be harder than one using plutonium. Eventually, U.S. negotiator Chris Hill backed away from the term program and sought simply to inquire as to the disposition of certain materials that seemed destined for use in HEU processing. In this HEU case, the Chinese reasoning about how to handle the matter had a tactical advantage. It subdued the disruptive chorus of accusations about an HEU program and a violation of the Agreed Framework. Maybe that offered a prospect of learning something about the issue beyond the confusing reconstructed October 2002 denial, then alleged admission and/or rambling defense of Pyongyang's right to have the program-whichever one considers this apparent fiasco to have been.

In any event, in examining the implications for us today of Chinese reticence to act precipitously against North Korea, the following extracts from Mike Chinoy's acclaimed 2008 book Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis are especially pertinent:

On October 3, 2002...[in Pyongyang, Assistant Secretary of State Jim] Kelly began [this crucial meeting with the North Koreans] by saying he had intended to start a dialogue about the Bold Approach [part of an overall process of rapproachment].... [I]t was not possible to do so because the United States had irrefutable information and intelligence that led it to believe North Korea was involved in a covert program to develop weapons through uranium enrichment.... [North Korean Vice Foreign Minister] Kim [Gye Gwan] called for a brief break. When the session resumed, Kim...declared that the claim of a secret uranium program was false.... He said the allegation had no more credibility than the U.S. accusation in 1998 that North Korea had a clandestine underground nuclear facility in Kumchangri. [On October 4,] Kelly's group [met] with a close confidant of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, [the] blunt, tough-minded North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kang [Sok Ju] what was to be one of the most crucial encounters in the history of American diplomacy with North Korea. His remarks at this meeting were a bombshell-words that Kelly and his stunned delegation took to be an acknowledgement of the U.S. claims that North Korea did indeed have a clandestine uranium program. When Kang's remarks were reported back to Washington, they became the catalyst that transformed dealing with North Korea...into a major crisis....Yet even years later, precisely what Kang said-and what he intended- remains a source of controversy and dispute. The issue is dogged by questions about North Korean rhetorical style and use of language, the accuracy of interpretation, the lack of thorough follow-up questioning by Kelly's team..., and the disdain for all suggestion of subtlety or compromise in the harsh American policy response. The U.S. government has never released its transcript of the meeting.... All the Americans, however, agree that at no point did the North Korean official explicitly confirm the allegations. "But I will go so far as to say he did not flatly say, 'We have a uranium enrichment program to build nuclear weapons.'" 9
We may judge Beijing's caution in the HEU affair and the current tragedy as unwarranted based on the assumption or conclusion that we have both all the factual details and "the big picture." Yet, in this author's view, we have not sufficiently digested Beijing's posture or attempted to get to the bottom of Pyongyang's motivation for what seems a gratuitously wrong attack. To start, Beijing's multi-pronged explanation for its measured, careful, reluctant approach, that many of us have heard repeatedly, is not being chanted loudly this time but is, nevertheless, wholly pertinent. The Chinese assert, first, that their leverage is less with North Korea's leaders than others suspect and that it would be easy to push too hard or too far and find that Pyongyang was no longer attentive to or caring about the advice or leverage coming from Beijing; i.e., China pushes North Koreas over the brink, and Pyongyang turns a deaf ear to Beijing. We, too, should fear that our remedy corners a crazy criminal.

The second prong concerns Beijing's specific fears of punitive actions bringing about or contributing to major negative unintended consequences. The oft-recommended cutoff or drastic reduction by China of food and energy aid now being provided to North Korea carries with it in the minds of the Chinese high risks of instability, insecure fissile material, starvation, military mutinies and/or bands of armed renegades or factions, chaos socially, uncertainty politically, and tens of thousands of refugees headed for China-all that plus the threat of U.S. and ROK forces moving north near China, and the high prospect that Pyongyang would be powerless as a unified Korea, of a shape not to China's liking, emerges. It requires great foresight to determine how change in North Korea can be change for the better.

The third prong of the concern is that Pyongyang carries out recklessly some of the threats of which it talks. Is the North Korea that was crazy enough to torpedo the ROK Navy ship also crazy enough to use its massive batteries of underground artillery to "turn Seoul into a sea of fire" or to deliver a nuclear suitcase bomb to a South Korean or U.S. city-and possibly to provide terrorists a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb. North Korea's actions have been reprehensible, but they could get worse.

We may not agree with Chinese concerns, but it is disingenuous for Americans to ignore these longstanding positions. They may prompt subtle but important variations in how we deal with Pyongyang, especially if we hold out any hope of rehabilitation rather than just punishment.

We must ensure now, not in regretful retrospect, that we have asked all the right questions and gotten the best possible answers in this heated dispute-and do so before we find ourselves careening toward a major conflict that need not have become a hot war. We have the answers to some of the obvious questions such as who did it and how. It is harder by far to answer the more complex questions such as why it was done, whether the response so far is likely to bring about a desirable outcome, and what we may have done differently. There remain, for this author, the central questions of what we-the ROK and its allies and friends, and other members of the community of nations-want ultimately to achieve in our reaction to this act, what other options were and are available, and what do we do to prevent further acts of this nature. And, finally, can this become an opportunity?

What happened? The ROK Navy 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan suffered sudden severe damage and sank on 26 March 2010, with the loss of 46 sailors. It was operating in company with another ROK Navy corvette near Baengnyeong Island, over 100 miles from the ROK mainland and less than 10 miles from the DPRK mainland, illustrating that even the geography contributes to the complicated, contentious nature of this incident. Very little about this incident is simple and straightforward, except the identity of the culprit, North Korea, first strongly suspected and now compellingly confirmed---despite Pyonyang's denials.

The location of the sinking is, despite its proximity to the DPRK, clearly west of the Northern Limit Line (NLL-not officially recognized by Pyongyang), which serves as a seaward extension of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that lies in the center of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) across the Korean Peninsula at roughly the 38th parallel. These waters have been the scene of considerable tension between the ROK and DPRK, some of it receiving widespread media coverage and international attention, as recently reviewed and rehashed by various well-informed panels at Washington think-tanks, with this author in attendance.

The political aspects further compound the geographic dispute. The armistice agreement concluded at the end of the Korean War stipulates that the islands, including Baengnyeong Island, belong to South Korea, but the sea area is claimed by both. The area includes rich fishing grounds, used by DPRK and Chinese fishing vessels. There have been, over the years, numerous confrontations, referred to as the Crab wars (likely to heat up again in June), between naval vessels from both sides, attempting to police what both regard as their territorial waters. Last year, there were several clashes, notably an action in November which left a DPRK vessel severely damaged. An exchange of fire took place near the island in January.

The report of a Multinational Combined Intelligence Task Force, provided along with the report described at the outset, asserted that a North Korean submarine carried out the attack. This author, who spent several decades involved in the U.S. Navy's highly successful Cold War antisubmarine warfare (ASW) effort, has been asked repeatedly, concerning this sinking incident, if a submarine would not be readily detected in such waters. Although lacking in actual ASW experience in this precise area, experience in similar areas leads to the conclusion that shallow waters such as these, with numerous fishing craft and other vessels, marine life, and other sources of noise, are very difficult conditions for the conduct of antisubmarine operations using acoustic sensors-the only type of sensor to detect submerged objects available to the patrolling corvettes. A submarine, mini-sub, or other submersible or semi-submersible vessel, especially one operating on battery (rather than diesel engine), would not be easily detected.

Since the author turned his attention to this matter, a salvage operation and, as described above, a multinational inquiry have been conducted. It is, however, interesting to review various assertions and alleged developments made available to the press and public as the inquiry proceeded. Preliminary reports (leaks to the press, etc.) made a good case that the sinking was not a result of grounding, although a portion of the sunken ship reportedly protruded above the surface. The catastrophic nature of the damage to the ship was not consistent with either a metal fatigue fracture or a grounding of a ship, as the report confirms. An internal explosion was said to have been ruled out by the testimony of survivors, the undamaged munitions discovered on the ship, and, as revealed in the report, the observed and analyzed effects on the ship's hull of the explosion.

The preliminary comments on the type of explosive device involved migrated from early suggestions of a mine to strong indications that a torpedo was the source of the explosion. These indications were said to include explosive residue consistent with a torpedo (apparently confirmed in the investigation, according to briefing materials used by Korean officials and seen by this author on the Internet) and analysis that suggests the rupture of the hull was consistent with a torpedo explosion beneath the ship but not in contact with the hull. At a meeting with the press to discuss the report of the inquiry, an ROK rear admiral specifically identified the source of the explosion as a North Korean torpedo fired from a midget submarine with night-vision capability 10 - without further elaboration on how this very specific conclusion was reached. This author has seen photographs in the report that convincingly identify the torpedo as a North Korean weapon; there seems no room for doubt on this issue.

The results of the investigation rule out the possibility that the corvette could have struck one of the thousands of mines deployed during the Korean War. Even without the conclusive evidence of a torpedo attack, it would have been remarkable that an ROK Navy ship would have been the accidental victim of a mine lurking in heavily fished and navigated waters for more than a half century.

As previously suggested, it is more than plausible-even probable, that a submarine or midget submarine would have remained undetected, although Cheonan was equipped to detect submarines. Moreover, nothing in the report states whether Cheonan was operating its ASW sensors. A passive (not actively pinging) homing torpedo with a proximity fuse would have headed for the noisy propeller and gas turbine of the corvette and detonated beneath the target ship-just as photography, diagrams, and analysis in the report show to be the case. There is simply no reason not to accept the findings of the investigation and every reason to do so.

What may have happened. Why might North Korea have done this? There is a good reason to consider the range of motivations and possible scenarios, not out of curiosity or in idle speculation but rather as a possible element or aid in calculating how best to respond effectively-yet not counterproductively. Pyongyang's petulance and unhappiness with the policies and actions of the administration of ROK President Lee Myung-bak lend great credibility to the suggestion that this was an effort to humiliate the South Korean government. Victor Cha (who served at the NSC in the Bush administration and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University) and Joel Wit (a former State Department official and now a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the founder of its Web site, two U.S. specialists on North Korea from very different sides of the American debate on North Korea, agreed Pyongyang was likely undertaking to humiliate Seoul, in their superbly insightful and informative joint appearance on the PBS News Hour on 20 May. Others have suggested that the sinking could be a gesture by Pyongyang to say, "See how crazy we are? Now leave us alone!"

This author had, during the period of the inquiry, been asked by other East Asia specialists to speculate about possible North Korean motivation and had come up with a number of possible rationales, which were voiced and/or collected in various venues in the Washington think-tank world. All were reminded that there were DPRK-ROK naval clashes in November and January, which was stressed by Jack Pritchard in a late April public event at the Korean Economic Institute (KEI), 11 where Pritchard is president. He asked also whether this might be tardy execution of a Kim Jong-il decision to retaliate or exact retribution. Cha and Wit, with their extensive experience in dealing with Pyongyang, also identified the factor of retaliation as relevant during the PBS News Hour appearance. This factor has otherwise been neglected, but will be further examined later in this paper.

Could this have been a mistaken or misguided act? Admittedly this is a less likely explanation of what may have occurred, and is included here primarily in an effort simply to be thorough in cataloging possible motivation for this unexpected and provocative attack. Might this have been an attack carried out by a renegade or over-zealous midget submarine unit commander who was incensed by the presence of the "enemy" ships in what he saw to be his country's territorial waters? Someone or some group might have overstepped orders, for example, to conduct intensive trailing of "enemy" navy ships and to defend against intrusion. The actions of the ROK Navy ships could have been misconstrued as intrusion or the orders could have been otherwise misinterpreted or carried out to excess. If such a thing occurred in this case, we may never know of it, while in most countries a leak or whistle blower would ensure that the truth would be learned eventually.

In this regard, it is appropriate to recall two conspicuous examples involving the Chinese and U.S. navies under similarly contentious circumstances. Beijing almost certainly did not in 2001 order Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei in his F-8 fighter to collide with the USN EP-3 or a year ago direct the crew of its fisheries ship to close the USNS Impeccable to 25 feet and attempt to cut the tow cable to its sonar array. In both cases, there was anger and frustration about the U.S. intelligence collection missions near the coast of China-regardless of the fact that the activities were not in China's territorial waters. In both cases, someone on the scene went too far in expressing displeasure with the American presence so near China.

It is also conceivable that the submarine was using the corvette as a target for a practice attack- a valuable realistic exercise. This author as a U.S. Navy officer both conducted and directed the conduct of such exercises against Soviet naval units-although without the use of a "live"weapon. In this situation off Korea, possibly everything was to be just as it would be in combat except that the final command to fire the torpedo would not be given. Could this have been an exercise gone awry, where someone then made a mistake or acted in anger?

Of course, by far the most likely scenario is that an order in some form came from Kim Jong-il, or at least a directive of some sort was issued with his authorization, and someone carried it out-successfully. Success is not a foregone conclusion in such an attack, especially in that this was likely the first "war shot" attack using this model torpedo by any navy-and this, we assume, was the inexperienced, isolated, under-trained DPRK Navy. In that vein, it is intriguing to speculate whether this was the first attempt, or had there been other undetected failed attacks. Could that explain a very tardy March retaliation for a November incident-the severe damage reportedly inflicted last year on a North Korean naval ship by the ROK Navy? Or was this just an awaited or sought-after opportunity that had finally presented itself? It should be noted that, in this most likely scenario of issuance of a high-level directive, retaliation is a very likely factor. This raises the question of whether the nature of reaction by the ROK and others should somehow take into account more fully the fact that the serious November shelling incident occurred. 12 This issue will be explored in the final section of this article.

Indeed, who, what organization, was entrusted to carry out such an extraordinary mission? Was the task assigned to a regular DPRK Navy submarine or submarine unit, or was it a special type of unit? The report of the intelligence task force incorporated in the inquiry report states that "a few small submarines and a mother ship" had left a North Korean naval base two or three days before the attack and returned to the base two or three days later.

Mike Finnegan, a specialist on North Korea at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and others have speculated in discussions that the culprit might be the Reconnaissance General Bureau, described as North Korea's lead intelligence collection and covert action arm-to include infiltration operations into the south and covert operations such as assassination, kidnapping and sabotage. Might the RGB have zealously championed this action and persuaded Kim Jong-il to go along with it-after all, some in Pyongyang might reason, nuclear and missile tests and the Syrian nuclear-reactor affair had not resulted in anything beyond sanctions.

None of the individual factors and scenarios just described are supported by sufficient evidence to date that would lead to adopting any one motivation or sequence as the most likely, but some combination of events and factors such as these-humiliation, retaliation, mistakes, zeal, overstepping orders, misplaced national pride, etc.-seem likely to have been parts of a chain of events resulting in the incident.

What may happen. ROK President Lee has announced the package of various actions by his government. There is a reasonable prospect of a further tightening, reinforcement, and bolstering of the sanctions already in place as a consequence of UN Security Council reactions to previous North Korean transgressions. It appeals to this author to impose a new plateau of sanctions-different and an order of magnitude above previous sanctions. Just in the naval arena, the UNSC could, for example, do something like declaring that the DPRK Navy was no longer considered by the community of nations as a legitimate national armed force. Its ships would be unwelcome in any port in the world, unable to purchase fuel oil and other commodities. No arms transfers would be permitted. These are this author's un-vetted first thoughts. There could be more or different features if the UNSC focuses on the matter-and imagination is brought to bear.

This is not to suggest that imposing sanctions is an easy or risk-free option to adopt. Pyongyang declares that any such actions, including sanctions, would result in "tough measures." 13 China's likely opposition and veto power in the UNSC make it unlikely that Pyongyang's bluff will be called-if that is what it is. Nevertheless, China will be pressed by the other parties most heavily involved, and this time will almost certainly feel economic pressure to support Seoul, to put its mouth where its money lies-in $200B in annual trade with the South and a meager $2B with the North-according to statistics cited during recent discussions by specialists. The assumption here is that China long ago made the choice of its real economic partner on the Korean Peninsula when 18 years ago it recognized South Korea diplomatically and built an important trade relationship that dwarfed its trade with North Korea. However, Beijing has, in the subjective view of this author, shown a renewed tendency to support Pyongyang, despite the DPRK's obnoxious nuclear and missile tests and this stunningly aggressive act against Seoul. Consequently, it must be asked what is realistic if this sanctions effort fizzles?

Victor Cha appears right on target in suggesting, very rationally and thoughtfully, that our goal should be to reestablish deterrence of North Korea's use of conventional weapons. "[M]y concern is that the North feels confident enough in its nuclear capabilities that they do not fear retaliation if they strike out conventionally..., Cha is quoted as saying. 14 It should be emphasized that there lurks in actions such as North Korea took and in possible South Korean responses the danger of escalation-of really big mistakes and major consequences. The actions taken can easily and unpredictably be too little or too much.

The ROK Navy and the U.S. Navy, either singly or together could be employed to enforce sanctions of an operational nature imposed on the DPRK Navy. They might be tasked to prohibit departures from port, to keep all DPRK Navy units under surveillance when underway in order to preclude a repetition of this attack, or even to fire upon DPRK ships that violate the constraints imposed upon them-although one wonders where the will and wherewithal for imposing such sanctions might originate.

If such tasks are undertaken, there must be a readiness to take the threatened actions-with all the dangers of escalation and, at a minimum, an effort by Pyongyang to strike out in frustration. Before such actions are given serious consideration, it would be prudent to start at the bottom with the drafting of the directive that would tell the ships' commanding officers and aircraft commanders what they are to do in various situations. This author suspects that the idea would be short-lived when subjected to this test. Prescribing when and how to employ force in uncertain and rapidly developing circumstances would be a sobering exercise in reality.

On the other hand, in the event that one or both navies are somehow saddled with this complex task-deterring the DPRK through naval presence, the threat of force, and the actual use of force, this could lead to development, in modern times, of a new set of methods for sanctions enforcement and quarantine that could be employed by the responsible navies of the world. The U.S. 1962 quarantine against Soviet ships approaching Cuba made a major contribution to resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, also in a situation where the danger of escalation to the use of nuclear weapons was a factor, but a half century of naval development has ensued. This author, however, believes this is too volatile an environment to be used as a test bed for such methods-or for the employment of traditional quarantine procedures.

It is also unrealistic to assume that one or both navies could bolster some particular capability and thereby stop certain actions by North Korea. The U.S. and ROK have announced antisubmarine exercises. The limited value of such actions should be appreciated. Pyongyang, as with terrorists, has many options and need succeed only once or occasionally, drawing from prospective options in any area. The defender must cover all options all the time. It had been earlier proposed to this author, that, in reaction to this attack, new or greatly enhanced shallow-water ASW capabilities be developed. Not only is shallow-water ASW a complex problem that has proven particularly hard to overcome, but if Pyongyang were blocked in the use of submarines by a remarkable new ASW capability, it need only switch to some other avenue of vulnerability-of which there will always be many in open, democratic countries. The point is not that such things are the wrong answer but rather that there is no good answer.

What must not happen. There are other important implications. This tragic incident with the potential for further fallout has driven the U.S. and ROK closer together, as evidenced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Seoul later in May, a week after the report of the international investigation. Before leaving for Asia, she stated, "This will not be and cannot be business as usual." The ROK report on the incident was credible, measured, and responsible. Further actions should be similarly measured and responsible but also effective.

We-the responsible nations of the world-don't want to drive China and North Korea either desperately closer together or hostilely farther from us. China can't bring itself to say anything that suggests North Korea is to blame-even in the face of irrefutable evidence. China is, however, having yet another rough time with its troublesome neighbor and ally. Are we, in light of that, pursuing private diplomacy with Beijing to the fullest extent? We should take into account in crafting further responses that we want eventually to come out of this on a path of a more stable-eventually unified-Korean Peninsula and a Northeast Asia regional security situation that builds on the Six-Party Talks process, whether that process is successful or not in ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons and the programs to develop them. We should not be looking for the opportunity to sink a North Korean ship (eye for an eye); we should not be turning the other cheek; we should be setting an example for Pyongyang to follow, expecting that eventually that message will be perceived. In the short term, restraint is a demanding course of action; in the long-term, lack of restraint is the course we will wish we had not taken.

There is no Northeast Asia Treaty Organization (NATO) in the region or any reasonable prospect thereof, but there is a new security arrangement. There are, of course, still bilateral alliances, albeit altered somewhat by recent developments in the relationships between the U.S. and its allies and between China and its sole treaty ally. There are still, as before, significant American forces, military modernization programs, communiqués, arms sales, exercises and understandings-and many misunderstandings. However, importantly, China is no longer the outsider; that is the change. Despite differences, China is now part of the regional security arrangement. Its important and improving bilateral and multilateral ties in the region represent the desired path for the future. We do not want to rekindle adversarial relationships and slip back to relationships based primarily on differences and disputes rather than common interests and shared responsibilities.

Regardless of our justifiable ire over the Cheonan sinking, there is a far greater factor to consider. North Korea has nuclear weapons or the makings thereof and other means to bring great misery to the people of South Korea. Presidents Lee Myung-bak, Hu Jintao, and Barack Obama should be losing sleep over the dangers of a nuclear North Korea, both as a potential user and as a potential proliferator. This author has previously described North Korea as being armed with two additional dangerous weapons: artillery and stupidity. There is no reasonable doubt about the outcome of a war that North Korea starts; its military and strategic depth are sorely subpar and shallow. However, the underground artillery ready to be rolled out and aimed at Seoul or the prospect of the use in some form of a nuclear weapon could produce enormous casualties. Whatever we do, we must take that into account.

What we can hope will happen. The goal of our further response cannot be simply to teach a lesson or exact retribution. The obstinate North Korea of today is not likely the North Korea that will relinquish its nuclear status or stand down its artillery. We must remain focused on how we can deter Pyongyang, avoid the awful possibilities, and take steps that can begin to transform North Korea, possibly along the lines Andrei Lankov 15 suggested in his widely noted article in Foreign Affairs late in 2009 or by other means, or get North Korea out of its defensive crouch, as Susan Shirk put it in introducing her task force report 16 on transforming North Korea. This report also reopened another dilemma. Must this effort be tied to denuclearization, or is denuclearization so important that this transformation must be pursued in tandem-or even first? This is truly a question where the importance lies in its being asked. For the present, it seems best not to try to answer but rather to accept that it is a legitimate, as yet unanswered, question.

Does it matter in deliberations concerning the appropriateness of current and further responses to this action by Pyongyang that naval skirmishes, including the exchange of gunfire and the infliction of significant damage to a North Korean ship, had occurred? Does it matter whether this was likely a factor, either directly (if tardily) or indirectly? By indirectly is meant that these skirmishes contributed to the development of an environment where the forces were operating close to each other, with "bad attitudes," in disputed waters, and operating in what both sides viewed as provocative ways-a game of chicken or even Russian roulette? This question is not intended to suggest that North Korea was justified in its actions or to equate morally or militarily the November 2009 and March 2010 incidents. Unlike other incidents, in the Cheonan sinking, no warning was given by either side; the attack was conducted without being preceded by a challenge or dispute, and it was done stealthily-with great loss of life. It was reprehensible, but not necessarily unpredictable or wholly unexpected. Pyongyang has committed murder in this sort of way many times.

Nevertheless, it seems that, in trying to be fair-minded and even-handed, the following factors are relevant: a history of hostile actions, the well-known fact that Pyongyang does not recognize the Northern Limit Line and claims the waters (as spurious as we may consider these claims) in which ROK Navy ships operate. This question is intended to suggest that the nature of further overtures to North Korea might give greater emphasis to a different tack from the previously used methods of imposing sanctions-a method that self-righteous Pyongyang considers high-handed.

North Korea could be asked anew, and with serious intent, both to explain the overwhelming evidence of its culpability and afforded the opportunity to offer ameliorating material. Coupled with this could be a pro forma suggestion of apology and the payment of reparations-with full recognition of the likely futility of the overture but done to preserve the patina of treating North Korea as though it might respond responsibly-the ultimate goal, after all. However done in detail, Pyongyang representatives-maybe those who will be handling affairs after Kim Jong-il is gone-would have been treated better than North Korea now deserves in the hope of having the North Koreans begin to live up to a new form of respect for them, although initially little deserved. Is this rewarding bad behavior? Yes, but it is like treating a teenager with respect in order to produce a reasonable adult rather than proving repeatedly that teenagers act irresponsibly.

Of course, Pyongyang is likely either to reject the offer to play a constructive role or to make a circus of its response-engaging in name-calling and absurd statements. However, Pyongyang would have been afforded a fair opportunity to tell its story or make its case-before the imposition of heavier sanctions or the levying of other castigation. In other words, Pyongyang's actions would undeniably have been a factor in any imposition of further sanctions or other measures. This idea supports suggestions, sometimes offered in discussions in Washington on how to handle North Korea, that a corner must be turned (or at least such a turn attempted) to bring North Korea out of the cold (or even out of the Cold War) and into the community of nations.

We have repeatedly demonstrated that North Korea is a reprobate. Is there an opportunity here to begin to deal with the DPRK not as a pariah state but as a nation that can be transformed? Could the chances of that be somehow enhanced by our measured and unexpected reactions to this tragic event? Could we conceivably, as suggested above, create such an opportunity by asking in a very serious way this time to hear Pyongyang's side of the story? Probably not. Highly unlikely, at best. But the gesture may register with some in North Korea and make it easier to turn that corner sometime in the future. If we make the effort, we will have at least tried, and nothing substantial will have been lost. Maybe something initially intangible will have been gained.

As Martin Luther King famously said when confronted with a seemingly intractable situation, I have a dream. The dream is dreamt as a vision to preclude the nightmare that could become true. Its essence is that there must come a time when Pyongyang can produce or we can find or induce something in North Korea's behavior that can allow us to turn that corner, to start on a positive path. It is unclear where reunification fits in this vision. As many on the soft-line side have pointed out, we haven't sincerely and unreservedly tried it all. Instead, some have dreamed of collapse and regime change. Others have envisioned military actions or even war. We have not with detachment and diligence looked for or created the opportunities. North Korea does not deserve such magnanimity. Both sides have fallen short, in the eyes of the other and perhaps in the absolute sense, in fulfilling commitments made to each other. Deserving or not, circumstances demand that we rise to the occasion with innovative ideas, strength balanced by humility and pragmatism, and a healthy shot of perseverance.

North Korea has, indeed, been intransigent. Pyongyang has similar feelings about the U.S. There is much blame to go around and nothing to be gained from one side assigning it to the other. The Cheonan sinking was doubly disappointing to this author because it further dimmed the dream. The dream might be given new hope if this vision, as just described, of making some progress, even a small step, toward a transformed North Korea is kept in mind as Seoul, Washington, Beijing and Tokyo consult, decide, and act.

An afterthought. And while in the world of dreams, this serious incident, the lack of compelling remedies, and the possible horrendous outcomes remind us that the ultimate solution to all this is peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Maybe reunification, as seen from the South and elsewhere-conceivably even from China, is no longer too hard, too dangerous, and too expensive. The problem of North Korea is big and has the unfortunate potential to get bigger-and worse. The solution must match the problem, including the potential to get bigger-and better. Pyongyang has again challenged the world and threatened fellow Koreans, but the greater challenge is to our imaginations. North Korea's actions will be shown in history to be unjustified and wrong. How can we best do what will seem to be not only justified but also right?


1The text of the report of the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) is available at cheonan/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+LondonKoreanLinks+(Londo n+Korean+Links)
2Glenn Kessler, "U.S. weighs response to attack on Korean ship," Washington Post, May 21, 2010, p. A8 Kessler quotes the U.S. State Department spokesman, P. J. Crowley who went on to say, "clearly this was a serious provocation by North Korea, and there will be consequences...."
4"China's Korea Crisis," editorial, Washington Post, May 31, 2010, p. A14
5John Pomfret, "Clinton condemns attack by N. Korea, Washington Post, May 22, 2010, p. A8
6Glenn Kessler, May 21
7Glenn Kessler, "Pyongyang tests U.S. "patience', Washington Post, May 27, 2010, p. A12
8"China's Korea Crisis," editorial, Washington Post, May 31, 2010, p. A14
9Mike Chinoy, Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, (St. Martin's Press, New York, 2008), pp. 115-121
10Blaine Harden, "S. Korea jettisons doubt about sinking," Washington Post, May 20, 2010, p. A11
11The Korea Economic Institute is registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as an agent of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP), a public entity established by the government of the Republic of Korea that also provides a majority of KEI's funding.
12The author failed to find an authoritative account of earlier and later naval encounters in the area and the November shelling of the North Korean ship, but assembled the following description, which conform to his recollections, from two contemporaneous entries on the Internet: (1) The two navies fought bloody skirmishes in the disputed waters in June 1999 and June 2002. Again, in November 10, 2009, a North Korean vessel retreated in flames after South Korean ships fired on it when it strayed across the line. (2) On Tuesday, November 10, the navies of North and South Korea exchanged fire in disputed waters off the western coast of the peninsula, damaging ships from both sides and reportedly killing a North Korean sailor. The incident began when a 215-ton North Korean vessel entered South Korean-controlled waters. Ignoring warnings from the South, the ship exchanged fire with two 130-ton South Korean vessels before re-crossing the border, reportedly in flames. The North, which claims the waters where the incident took place, has blamed the South for instigating the confrontation and issued repeated warnings through its state news service.
13John Pomfret
15Andrei Lankov, "Changing North Korea," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 6 (November/December 2009), 95-105
16The Asia Society in the U.S. and the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation of the University of California at San Diego sponsored a major study on engaging North Korea entitled North Korea Inside Out: The Case for Economic Engagement. Dr. Susan Shirk and other task force members presented the study in Washington in October 2009. This author attended that event. The study is available at

This page last updated 6/17/2010 jdb

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