Published in The Daily Star, Saturday, 29th May, 2010
THE situation in the Korean Peninsula is tense to use a mild word to describe a situation that an US official has called, with reference to the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan by an alleged North Korean torpedo that killed 46 South Korean crewmen, the gravest provocation in decades. It has also set into motion possible developments that could re-define the future of the decades old strategic relationships shaped in the region painstakingly out of realities emerging from the end of the Second World War; the Korean War; the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of China as a world power.
The most important of the strategic relationships has been the US-Japan Security Pact under which some 47,000 US troops are stationed in Japan with more than half of it in Okinawa to give it defense and nuclear protection as Japan is forbidden by its constitution from having offensive military capability. That pact has been under pressure since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power after overthrowing the LDP last year. In fact, when the schedule of the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's just concluded visit to Japan was being finalized, the hot topic was expected to be the fate of US air force base in Futenma in Okinawa that the local residents wanted to be shifted with the DJP also supporting the local demand. Japan-US Security Pact's future was under serious pressure as Hillary Clinton prepared for her Japan visit.
An international commission inquiring into the sinking of Cheonan revealed just before Hillary Clinton arrived in Tokyo last Friday that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the ship. The revelation had an unexpected result on the talks that Hillary Clinton had in Tokyo. Instead of heated exchanges where Japan was expected to put pressure on the US, it was the Japanese who changed their views. After his meeting with the US Secretary of State, the Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said, “in the current security environment, the presence of U.S. forces is indispensable for the security of Japan.” Okada also suggested that the DJP Government would be able to reach some satisfactory understanding with the residents of Okinawa. Hillary Clinton and Okada agreed that the international community cannot allow the attack to go unanswered and must send a clear message to North Korea.
North Korea has denied any responsibility for Cheonan, insisting that the situation in the Korean Peninsula is fast moving towards war. The tough action that the United States and Japan have demanded in Tokyo will depend primarily on which way China leans. China is North Korea's principal ally and has veto power in the UN Security Council. The early signs are not encouraging for China's support. Chinese President Hu Jintao this month welcomed the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on his train visit to China shortly after he met the South Korean President indicating clearly his country's unwillingness to take sides on the Cheonan issue.
The Cheonan issue, sad as it has been for the South Koreans, has opened up opportunities for USA's strategic interests in the Korean Peninsula by influencing the Japanese Government to resolve the conflict over the air force base in Okinawa to be resolved in favour of the United States. The US however must get China on board to drive home fully the advantage that the Cheonan issue has provided. That was one of Hillary Clinton's primary sale items to the Chinese at the US-China Strategic and Economic Talks that was held in Beijing early this week.
In the long list of US demands on China that came up at the talks, the issue of Cheonan was discussed in a matter of fact manner despite the gravity that the US attached to it. China did not seem eager to look at the issue with the same anger and passion that was generated during the Hillary Clinton-Katsuya Okada talks in Tokyo or in Seoul where South Korea has frozen all trade ties with North Korea and has strengthened its military posture towards its neighbour. Despite proofs to the contrary, China continued to remain skeptical about North Korean involvement in the sinking of Cheonan, making it difficult to launch a UN sponsored move for sanctions against North Korea let alone harsher punitive moves demanded by South Korea and to a lesser extent by Japan and the USA. In Beijing, Hillary Clinton strongly urged China to find common cause with the USA regarding “the serious challenge provoked by the sinking of the South Korean ship”. To the Secretary's forceful appeal, the Chinese called the incident “unfortunate” and hoped that “all relevant parties will exercise constraint and remain cool headed”. Although such a response by China is normal even where they may harbor a more intense reaction, in case of the Cheonan issue it does not appear that the parties seeking serious action against North Korea on the issue would get China fully on board.
The sinking of Cheonan is an extremely provocative action. Nevertheless, it was not unexpected. North Korea is in the habit of such provocations and the list is indeed a long one. It carries out such actions to draw attention of its neighbours and the big powers towards it. In fact, despite its lack of resources, North Korea has demanded and received world attention because of its nuclear capability and its ability to carry out threats. However, from the Obama administration, it has not been getting the attention it wants which is an abandoning of the six-party talks of the Bush era for a new format and veering away from threats of tough economic sanctions. Although the Obama administration has spoken of engagement in dealing with countries his predecessor termed as “axis of evil” in reality this has not happened, not even after North Korea's nuclear test in May last year.
Nevertheless, the US has always come back eventually to talks with the North Koreans and with promising results. It was engagement in the 1990s that has contained North Korea's nuclear arsenal to just 6 today. This time too, despite all the tough talk by the Secretary of State, the parties look likely to return to the table because without China's total support that is not forthcoming, the chances of tough economic sanctions or military action are very unlikely. In that sense, Cheonan will bring out the same result as always; listening to what the North Koreans have to say. This time however the latest provocative act of North Korea has, for the time being, strengthened US' strategic standing in the Korean Peninsula.
The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.