Options Limited on N. Korea
By JUNG SUNG-KI And WENDELL MINNICK
SEOUL and TAIPEI — A North Korean artillery barrage on the remote South Korean island of Yeonpyeong and revelations of a new uranium enrichment facility last week have shaken Seoul and Washington.
a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington (CVN 73), is moving into the area as part of continuing exercises started in response to the North Korean sinking in March of the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy corvette. The sinking, which killed more than 40 sailors, and the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong that killed four, are turning 2010 into one of the most violent years since the Korean War ended in 1953.
There are fears this is “only the beginning of similar North Korean provocations over the coming year or so,” said Bruce Bennett, a Northeast Asia defense analyst at the Rand Corp. The artillery attack and revelations of a new uranium enrichment facility appear to have “been part of a well-planned effort” to bring South Korea and the U.S. to the negotiating table.
There are also fears North Korea will conduct its third nuclear test, he said.
Despite threats by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to attack a missile facility near the North Korean artillery base, there are few retaliatory military options that do not risk escalation.
Seoul is constrained by the same factors that hindered a strong response to North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan, said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst on North Korea, now with the Heritage Foundation. There are legitimate fears that even a “limited retaliatory attack could degenerate into an all-out conflagration,” Klingner said.
North Korea has “escalation dominance” that allows them to up the ante in any conflict with the South, said Mark Fitzpatrick, who runs the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
South Korea has far too much to lose in any military escalation with North Korea, Fitzpatrick said. Seoul, well within artillery range of the North, is a financial powerhouse in Asia. In contrast, Pyongyang’s economic foundation has crumbled and the government is desperate for assistance.
Pyongyang’s long-running strategy of alternating provocation and conciliatory behavior has consistently thrown Washington diplomats off balance, Klingner said.
However, the increasing violence also heralds desperation within Pyongyang’s leaders as the economic situation deteriorates. They might launch a limited “diversionary war” to tamp down political dissent against North Korea’s paramount leader Kim Jong-il, now reportedly ill and dying, Bennett said.
There are also fears that Kim’s death will touch off a power struggle. Kim’s son, Kim Jong-un, is heir apparent, but military hardliners may see him as too young and inexperienced.
Ken Quinones, a North Korean specialist and former U.S. State Department official, said Kim Jong-il’s ill health and desire to encourage the military to accept his son as heir might have influenced his decision to allow the Nov. 23 bombardment. “As for Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang’s apparently erratic behavior is not a consequence of Kim’s ‘irrationality,’” he said. “If anything, Pyongyang’s split behavior appears to be a consequence of a deeply divided civilian-military leadership headed by an increasingly weak leader.”
China’s Lethargic Response
Hopes that China would lean on Pyongyang after the Cheonan incident have been largely dashed.
The Nov. 23 artillery attack occurred the same day as a meeting with Beijing officials by Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy. Both sides discussed the North Korean problem in a “candid, in-depth manner” with pledges for an “early reopening of the six-party talks,” said a Chinese Foreign Ministry press release. There was no condemnation of the attack by Chinese officials.
“China has shown itself to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” Klingner said. Beijing is unwilling to be the “responsible stakeholder that many had hoped it would be.” North Korean behavior will no doubt overshadow the planned visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the U.S. in early 2011, and distract from China’s goals of pressuring the White House to curb arms sales to Taiwan and recognize its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China will not punish North Korea, despite being annoyed by the timing of the attack and revelations of a new nuclear facility, said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Glaser said Beijing’s priority is to preserve “peace and stability” in North Korea, which it views as a strategic asset, Glaser said.
She said China is taking a paternal approach to North Korea, convinced Pyongyang will eventually implement Chinese-style economic reforms.
“Even when your child misbehaves, you must encourage it to do the right thing, but it is still your child,” she said.