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Sinking of the Cheonan: Opportunity and Danger

What to Do If North Korea Is to Blame
23 April 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

Coming up with an effective response to the Cheonan incident won't be simple. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Byron C. Linder/Released)

North Korea has a history of aggressive behavior towards the South. So it would not be entirely out of character for it to have ordered an attack on a South Korean ship in retaliation for a naval skirmish last year, as some are alleging (including a North Korean defector).

If it becomes clear that North Korea’s top leaders ordered this attack, with a probable death toll of 46 sailors, the South Korean public will demand a forceful response from President Lee Myung-bak. Since the Cheonan was sunk nearly four weeks ago, the issue has been on the front pages of all the major South Korean papers every day. The population is stirred up.

Waiting to respond was the responsible thing to do; we don’t yet have definitive knowledge that this was a North Korean attack. But waiting is also raising the stakes for Lee’s government.

The dangers of striking back militarily are obvious. The North Korean side, which is denying it had anything to do with the original incident, could retaliate and set off a cascade of events ending in a regional war. North Korea’s conventional weapons and Seoul’s proximity to the North make this a very deadly prospect.

My sense is that the best way to respond would be, in public, to work to catalyze the natural changes resulting from aggressive North Korean behavior. And in private, Seoul and Washington should look at ways to hit back that will send a message to the Kim Jong-il regime without provoking undue pressure from North Korea’s elite to escalate the situation.

The three goals of any South Korean and American response should be:

  1. Deter North Korea from similarly aggressive behavior in the future.
  2. Prevent this incident from escalating into a a full-scale war.
  3. Leverage the situation towards the goal of reducing North Korea’s ability to threaten allies in the region.

A Diplomatic Response

Every aggressive North Korean action helps build solidarity between the American, South Korean, Japanese, Russian, and even Chinese governments. Past North Korean nuclear tests and missile tests have led to China to support tough sanctions resolutions in the UN Security Council and helped heal divides between South Korea and Japan. New polls show a sea change in public opinion in China and Russia towards North Korea, which Chinese people in particular have seen before in a positive light.

If the U.S. and South Korea can use this action to force the Chinese into punishing the North Korean government by canceling planned natural resources and port redevelopment projects in North Korea, that would be a major hit for North Korea. It would be a punishment, a deterrent, and another way of forcing North Korea back to the negotiating table on U.S. terms.

South Korea can do a lot to prod the Chinese government into acting, not least by making the case to China that the Korean public might force Lee into striking back militarily–whatever the consequences–if China doesn’t publicly punish North Korea.

China can be pressured indirectly as well. South Korea and Japan can intensify their effort to address the island disputes that are a constant source of mistrust between the two. China fears that a South Korea overly friendly to Japan could threaten Chinese interests in the long term if the China-Japan rivalry heats up. As much as possible, this incident should be used as a tool for forcing China, in particular–but also Russia–to put more pressure on Kim Jong-il, not only on the nuclear issue.

A Covert Military Response

And what of quiet efforts? What kind of action would silence North Korean government officials who view South Korea’s hesitation as a sign of weakness? It is crucial for South Korea’s security that it dispels the idea that North Korean conventional and unconventional forces can successfully deter South Korea’s willingness to defend itself from attack.

Here planners can take a lesson from the North Koreans: an attack needs to be small enough that it would not justify a full-scale war, large enough to grab the adversary’s’ attention, and deniable enough that a cautious adversary could decide not to respond at all because of the uncertainties involved. The attack also shouldn’t come too soon after the original incident.

Deniability and uncertainty about a retaliatory action reduce the chances that North Korea would risk a war by responding–it knows it would surely lose a war without (at the very least) supplies and equipment from China, which would not be forthcoming.

I’m thinking something like: huge storm at sea, a North Korean navy ship appears to be weathering the storm ok, until it just…sinks. A South Korean media leak suggests this was a covert action by South Korea, but the government denies knowing anything about it. Kim Jong-il doesn’t know what happened, either; and, unlike South Korea, he won’t have the technology to launch a real investigation.

But in Pyongyang, strategists find it impossible to discount the possibility that South Korea did retaliate, after all. After facing tighter sanctions enforcement from China and the loss of an expensive ship, North Korean strategists might think twice before trying an attack like this again.

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  • Kevin Slaten said:

    For the most part, I think the diplomatic aims and angles here are on the mark, but the explicit backing of covert strikes seems to question the argument’s internal logic. Even if it is a response that works, no one would ever talk about it because that would defeat the very point of preventing an escalation. So in this way, it seems that the latter part of your argument may be at odds with one of the three explicit goals.

  • Daniel Michaeli (author) said:

    I see your point, of course. I debated whether to post this. But ultimately I decided that being at a think tank and in no way associated with the South Korean or U.S. governments gives me extra leeway to write about what should be done covertly.

  • Kevin Slaten said:

    Ha. The freedom (or trappings?) of the US policymaking system!

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