As a visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School with some knowledge of the Korean situation (I was EU Commission Ambassador to South Korea from 2002-2006), I was invited to comment on the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the “Cheonan”, on Channel News Asia’s radio on 19 May and then on the 8pm television news bulletins on 20 May and 24 May.
It is very difficult to summarise in two minutes on tv a situation as complex as that of the Korean Peninsula, the last remnant of the Cold War. So I will try to take advantage of this medium to address the excellent questions raised by the Channel News Asia interviewers at greater length and hopefully more cogently.
I should preface my remarks by expressing my deepest sympathy for the loss of 46 innocent lives in the sinking of this ship – the sense of grief and outrage prevalent among the South Korean public is understandable.
The first question I was asked was of course whether the measures announced by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in retaliation for the alleged sinking of the Cheonan by a North Korean torpedo would have much impact on the North.
In all honesty, I have to admit that I think the South Korean President went as far as he possibly could go, without risking a dangerous military escalation. But in practice, the measures will not affect North Korea that much.
When President Lee was elected just over a year ago, he abandoned the so-called “sunshine policy” towards North Korea, initiated by former President Kim Dae Jung and pursued by his successor President Roh Moo Hyun, insisting instead on greater reciprocity from the North in return for economic assistance from the South. North Korea made things worse by exploding two nuclear devices, the first in 2006, the second in 2009, by testing missiles and by walking out of the Six Party Talks on denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula (the talks involving the two Koreas plus China, Russia, USA and Japan had come surprisingly close to a deal in 2008). In practice, bilateral dialogue between the two Koreas has been suspended for the last 18 months.
The banning of bilateral trade between South Korea and North Korea announced by President Lee is significant (roughly $ 1bn per annum) but North Korea will probably replace this trade with increased trade with China, its main source of vital food and energy requirements.
Prohibiting North Korean vessels from using South Korean waters could affect the North but it also raises the prospect of military engagement especially in disputed waters.
President Lee has advocated a pragmatic approach to South Korean companies operating in the Kaesong industrial zone, situated just over the border in North Korea, which employs 30 000 North Korean workers and is considered to be the flagship for the co-operation between the two Koreas advocated by former President Kim Dae Jung. South Korea has said that it will also continue humanitarian assistance to North Korea.
So, since bilateral measures are unlikely to have a great impact, South Korea will raise the sinking of the Cheonan in the UN Security Council. It is not clear what kind of UN measures South Korea will request. North Korea is already subject to UN sanctions following its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, so there is not much more the UN can do. It is unlikely that the UN would impose tough economic sanctions, since China and others would not wish to precipitate the collapse of North Korea.
The US, Japan and most European countries can be expected to support a South Korean request for some sort of UN sanction. The question remains how Russia and China will react.
Both Russia and China have voted in favour of UN Sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
However, this case is somewhat different. Russia has already questioned the independence of the report proving that the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. Indeed they have asked why Russian experts were not invited to take part in the investigation. This would seem to indicate that Russia will take its time to evaluate the evidence before reaching a conclusion.
China is in a much more difficult situation. The North Korean leader, Kim Jung Il, visited China at the beginning of May 2010, that is while the South Korean investigation into the Cheonan disaster was taking place. China is Pyongyang’s only real ally at the moment and China is keen to avoid a sudden political or economic collapse of the North Korean regime. China has always detested instability on its borders and would not want millions of North Korean refugees pouring into China.
The South Korean media and some western media have expressed disappointment that Chinese Premier Wen Ziabao did not condemn the North Korean attack during his summit meeting with Japan and South Korea held in Jeju on 30 May. I think such expectations are unrealistic. In view of North Korea’s repeated and vehement assertions that it was not involved in any way in the sinking of the Cheonan, the Chinese Premier could hardly call Kim Jung Il a liar – especially in front of their old enemy, Japan!
Chinese diplomacy is cautious – especially when the stakes are so high. China undoubtedly has influence in Pyongyang but it also knows that the regime there is at its worst when it feels isolated.
The interviewers then asked me whether I thought there could be another war on the Korean peninsula. I believe that the military option is unthinkable and none of the belligerents can seriously be envisaging such steps. However, we must avoid a situation where parties stumble into war through tit for tat measures. The best hope we can have is that behind the scenes, China and the US can find a way of bringing all parties back to the Six Party Talks or whatever diplomatic framework can be made to work.
One last remark. North Korea’s vehement denial of any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan leaves me perplexed. In my contacts with North Koreans, I always found them very logical – indeed brilliant negotiating tacticians. Usually, when they explode a nuclear bomb, launch a missile over Japan, fail to launch a satellite, throw out the IAEA nuclear inspectors, they are quick to claim responsibility and even to boast about their achievements. It is always obvious how they will use these steps to obtain more from prospective negotiations. The North Koreans had always been careful not to antagonize South Korean public opinion. But in the case of the Cheonan, none of this applies.
I have just read the excellent article on 28 May published in the “Tribune” by Glyn Ford, former Member of the European Parliament and one of the most knowledgeable Westerners about North Korea I have ever met. In his article, he suggests that the EU could play an extremely useful role in helping the two Koreas out of the current impasse. Interestingly enough, in my 6 interviews by Singapore media last week, not once did any presenter mention the EU……