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Most South Koreans Skeptical of Report Blaming North Korea for Deadly Ship's Explosion in March

The incident added tension between North and South Korea. But the international community and the South Korean public can help defuse this potentially dangerous situation.

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In the end, the regime’s utter lack of transparency has allowed hawkish and conspiratorial interpreters alike to mold North Korean motives to whatever the narrative demands.

U.S. Foreign Policy Objectives

The United States has endorsed the response of Lee’s government and made clear its continued security guarantee to South Korea. The United States has enhanced its commitment by leading the charge for broadened sanctions on the North and participating in conspicuous joint military exercises in the Sea of Japan.

The Lee government’s initially rigid insistence that North Korea would have to acknowledge and apologize for the Cheonan incident before any further diplomatic steps could be taken might have jeopardized the Obama administration’s goal of re-instituting the six-party talks in Northeast Asia. But such fears have appeared to dissipate as some South Korean officials have suggested that the issues are not linked.

Relatively secure in this regional goal, U.S. support of its South Korean ally has also facilitated South Korea’s reluctant cooperation in sanctioning the Iranian regime and rewarded it for its renewed commitment to the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. The incident has thus provided an opportunity to strengthen U.S.-ROK relations in light of continued tensions with Japan over the location of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.

China, North Korea’s lone ally, has sought rather unsuccessfully to avoid the issue by refusing to comment on it. Any overt acceptance by the Chinese of North Korean complicity in the sinking would severely narrow its diplomatic options. But China also stands to jeopardize its economic ties to the South and its desired reputation as a regional stabilizer by idling on the issue. Russia, meanwhile, claims to have determined that a sea mine caused the sinking but has refused to share its findings with South Korea. It is likely seeking to maximize its diplomatic leverage with all concerned parties by concealing the extent of its knowledge.

Moving Forward

South Korea’s official report on the sinking of the Cheonan represents a serious effort to bolster the South’s account of the incident and to rebut the claims of skeptics. Many of its answers are well reasoned and persuasive, but as we have made clear here, its final report hardly puts the issue to rest.

Fundamentally, the report is a political document meticulously crafted to lend scientific credibility to the aggressive posturing of the Lee government in South Korea. Whereas a scientific paper might be subject to peer review and critique, the GNP’s forceful crackdown on dissenters leaves no illusions about the document’s political nature. Given lingering questions about the account and its obvious value to the country’s conservative government, Professors Suh and Lee have even wondered aloud whether some of the government’s evidence was fabricated.

The Lee administration has stated that North Korea must acknowledge and apologize for sinking the Cheonan before relations resume. However, given North Korea’s interest to deny culpability, coupled with continued public skepticism, it may be in South Korea’s best interest to rethink its current position and attempt to re-engage North Korea diplomatically along with international partners.

Indeed, the Lee government may have limited its own options, at least in the short term. By adopting a strong posture in the face of the North Korean threat, and indeed prosecuting those who have questioned it, Lee has clearly attempted to capitalize on the North Korean bogeyman to prolong its hold on power. However, this strategy seems to have backfired, as evidenced by the rebuke of Lee’s “ pressure approach” toward the North in the last elections. It is unclear what the South seeks to gain by continuing its hard-line approach. Furthermore, given predictable Northern intransigence, the Lee administration’s response has left it bereft of other constructive options. Forging ahead on its current path runs the risk of sparking further conflict. Such tactics do not have a good track record of success, nor will they likely be conducive to re-engaging the North diplomatically.

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