The South Korean government issued its final findings from its analysis of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel last March. The report concludes that the South Korean ship was sunk by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine. The conclusion which provoked an immediate and sharp response from the North Korean government, which dismissed the findings as a “conspiratorial farce” and promised “all-out war” and a “nuclear fire shower” if punitive actions are taken against the Pyongyang regime.
The report (and equally importantly North Korea’s reaction to the report) raise some important questions. As Julian Borger argues, South Korea is now caught in a diplomatic (and political) black hole. There is clearly political pressure from within South Korea to respond to the sinking, which claimed the lives of some 46 South Korean sailors. But what sort of response is likely to be productive. The South Korean president is scheduled to address the United Nations Security council this week, and there will likely be discussion of sanctions. But the North Korean regime has been subject to UN sanctions for several years as a result of its ongoing nuclear program. It seems unlikely that further sanctions will fundamentally alter the regime’s policies, particularly if the Chinese government, which has historically been suspicious of sanctions against North Korea, remains hesitant to actively support them. In short, a political/diplomatic response is unlikely to be effective, while a military response is undesirable.
Further, as Ruediger Frank points out in his blog, 38 North, some of the fundamental questions surrounding the attack have not been asked. Most importantly, Frank argues,
Sinking a corvette is very different from shooting a tourist or firing a few pistol shots across the 38th parallel. It is even unlike killing an enemy with an axe in the neutral zone around Panmunjom. It is hard not to regard the deliberate sinking of a warship and the killing of 46 crewmen as an act of war. And it is hard to expect the other side not to share this view.
So who made this fatal and risky decision? Those in the West who insist on calling Kim Jong Il the Dear Leader (although this title has not been in use in North Korea for one and a half decades), who believe that he is the personification of evil and the only person with power in his country, will argue that only he could have given the order. But this assumption collides with a truism that my students learn in their first semester: the top priority of the DPRK leadership is regime survival. An open war against the South would be suicidal.”
Frank concludes that the attack may not have been launched by the North Korean government, but rather reflects the deteriorating chain of command within North Korea itself. Such a situation could be far scarier for the stability of the Korean peninsula.