Foreign Policy Blogs

Building a Chorus of Condemnation

As tension mounts in the Korean peninsula in the wake of the Cheonan incident, it is worth taking stock of the various diplomatic options on the table. It is too early to predict what kind of pressure will be applied to the rogue regime for its belligerency this time around, but, importantly, a chorus of important voices have underscored the fact that this act of flagrant violence necessitates a sharp departure from business as usual. It is tempting indeed to treat the latest incident as yet another of North Korea’s persistent ploys to play naughty then nice in the hopes of further extracting aid, as they have done time and again. (It is no secret that N. Korea is in desperate need of assistance, as botched economic reforms and widespread famine continue to afflict its already impoverished people). But to do so – to approach this incident in the same way as, say, an ICBM test launch – is to mistake a rattling saber for a sword unsheathed. That is to say, firing a torpedo on a S. Korean naval vessel is a supremely brazen act of violence – and some hotter heads would say a clear-cut act of war. (Fortunately, no government is yet to use the term.)

What is perhaps most interesting about this current incident is the wild range of explanations that experts and analysts have offered up (see the video embedded below for some examples). From destabilizing regime succession politics to a rogue naval commander to embarrassing the conservative administration of Lee Myung-Bak for its clouding out the sunshine, commentators have pained themselves to divine meanings from the geopolitical tea leaves. Perhaps the only thing they can agree on is that there is trouble in the ranks of Kim Jung-il’s cabal – an instability that will only grow more pernicious with time.

To be sure, diplomats from Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington D.C. will cobble together a sanctions package in the US Security Council. It remains to be seen if this package will go further than a condemnation and a host of minor economic/trade sanctions. The importance of China in backing these measures cannot be overstated.

But what other options do the parties involved have? Should S. Korea take the helm in the effort to reproach the North as they are the major stakeholder? What is the US role, given its military presence and historical roots on the peninsula? All of these questions and many more are critical to maintaining peace in a region that is hotter than it has been in many years.

The essential question is basically how will cooler heads prevail? The short answer, in the wise words of Joel Wit, is that we can start by not sinking diplomacy.

Here are a few other salient points that have emerged in recent days:

A more robust US/ROK naval presence in the waters off the peninsula is an idea that has gained in currency in the aftermath of the Cheonan’s sinking. Policing the seas is in many ways a logical response. But given the opaque nature of the regime’s thinking, this tactic ups the ante to a dangerous level. This idea should be scrapped, or at least moved to the bottom of the diplomat’s toolbox.

A Security Council Resolution – either non-binding or one with a bite. Here again, however, foreign policy makers run the risk of operating business as usual, essentially underplaying their hand. UNSC squabbles apropos North Korean belligerency and recalcitrance are by now de rigeur, and do little more than signal that diplomats don’t have the creativity, political capital and organization to cook up something more meaningful or effective.

Deflect the pressure to Beijing. If anything, this incident provides an opportunity for diplomats to convince China that it needs to throw its weight behind the condemnation of Kim Jung-il and his regime. China has everything to lose: its trade with S. Korea is nearly ten times that with the DPRK and its growing regional presence is contingent on appeasing Japan (another major trading partner). Perhaps more importantly, China has the opportunity to take the lead in smoothing over geopolitics in its own neighborhood – a dream come true for many in Beijing.

My two cents, for what they’re worth, is that diplomats should indeed ratchet up their pressure on China in the coming days and weeks. To this end, it is absolutely essential that the US, S. Korea, and Japan form a united front – something that has been decidedly lacking from other negotiations regarding N. Korea (non-proliferation chief among them). Solidarity is the key to unlocking China – something that is remarkably hard to come by in the contentious political terrain of Northeast Asia. Notably, a rift has already emerged between the Chinese and Japanese sides in regards to the veracity of the intelligence offered up by the US and S. Korean analysts.

Hillary Clinton is in China this week (on a a trip slated months before the incident), having made the rounds in the region. It absolutely critical that she cultivates solidarity among her counterparts on this issue, and that she conveys the sense of urgency and aforementioned “no business as usual” message to diplomats and policymakers in Beijing. This is of course easier said than done: China has a lot to sort out, and they wont be making any drastic movement on the issue anytime soon. Quite to the contrary, time passing without further incident is to their benefit. But that – perhaps mistakenly – assumes that Kim Jung-il has his ducks in a row.

In short, in order for China to join in the chorus of condemnation, its must first hear – in the most unequivocal of terms – what it has to lose from inaction.

I’ll leave you with the incisive analysis of veteran Korea watchers Victor Cha and Joel Wit, as they hashed out the diplomatic calculus on last week’s Newshour:



David Fedman

David Fedman is a PhD student in the History Department of Stanford University where he focuses on modern Japanese and Korean history. He lives in San Francisco, California.