Thursday’s formal accusation by South Korea that a North Korean torpedo sunk the warship Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors, has set off a flurry of activity in Washington as politicians and foreign policy experts try to identify an appropriate U.S. response while balancing the need to maintain a stable relationship with China — the North’s biggest sponsor.
At the heart of the controversy is not whether North Korea was indeed responsible for the attack — most reports from Seoul and Washington had indicated that it was the only real suspect in the incident — but how South Korea and the U.S. should respond.
Complicating the issue further, both Seoul and Washington have made significant improvements in relations with China in recent months. Any attempt to impose sanctions on North Korea would almost certainly come at the expense of the growing Chinese investment in the North.
Lawmakers in Washington responded to the findings of the South Korean investigation with condemnations of North Korea’s aggression and, in some cases, calls for North Korea to be put back on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"Seoul and Washington will continue to consult closely on the appropriate next steps, including the referral of this matter to the U.N. Security Council and the imposition of additional multilateral or unilateral sanctions on North Korea based on the objective and scientific review of evidence conducted by international investigators," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to put North Korea back on the list of terror sponsoring countries as a consequence for both the attack on the Cheonan and the alleged transfer of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah.
The White House has asserted that it will make the decision on whether to relist North Korea based on the legal requirements for labeling countries as sponsors of terrorism.
The attack on the Cheonan, while in violation of the 1953 armistice which brought the end of fighting in the Korean War, would not qualify as an act of terrorism since the target of the attack was a military vessel.
Such a relisting would require, as Ackerman pointed out, an examination of whether North Korea has supplied arms to terrorist groups.
Last year, 35 tonnes of weapons were seized by Thai authorities after a cargo plane from North Korea stopped in Bangkok en route to Tehran. Israeli government officials have alleged that the weapons were ultimately bound for Hamas and Hezbollah but no conclusive evidence has been produced.
"Further complicating Obama’s decision [about whether to put North Korea back on the state sponsors of terrorism list]… experts say the law requires the U.S. be able to show that N. Korea knew that the arms shipment being alleged by Israel was going to a terrorist organization, and not a ‘legal’ (however unpopular) recipient like Iran," wrote Chris Nelson in the insider newsletter The Nelson Report.
Regardless of how the Obama administration chooses to respond unilaterally, it is likely South Korea will take the report on the sinking of the Cheonan to the United Nations and request a statement or resolution denouncing North Korea’s actions.
The question many analysts are left asking is how China, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council and North Korea’s biggest investor and ally, will respond to the international pressure to condemn Pyongyang.
Pressuring China to go along with a censure of North Korea will be difficult after an announcement just this week that the U.S. had gained the support of both Russia and China in bringing new U.N. sanctions against Iran.
China had resisted, explicitly saying that it would not support sanctions against Iran but, it was widely believed, had been put under pressure by the U.S. not to veto the sanctions in the Security Council.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has requested that South Korean companies refrain from starting any new deals with the North and has suspended government financing for cross-border projects.
The withdrawal of South Korean investment in the North will mean that Lee’s government will lose what little economic leverage it held over the North and increase Kim Jong-Il’s dependence on China for investment.
In a possible anticipation of this very situation, Kim Jong-Il made one of his rare trips outside of North Korea earlier this month to visit China, presumably to secure food and economic aid from the country’s most important patron.
Since its departure from the Six-Party Talks last year, North Korea has indicated that it would seek bilateral negotiations with the U.S. with the end goal being a U.S.-North Korea peace treaty, but Washington has been consistent in insisting that such steps can only be taken after the Six-Party Talks are resumed and Pyongyang takes irreversible steps towards denuclearization.
Foreign policy experts in Washington are debating whether the current situation is best handled through increased diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang — under the logic that increased communication with North Korean leadership will help prevent future confrontations — or imposing new unilateral or multilateral sanctions on the North.
"Negotiations with North Korea can be frustrating, but dialogue can work. It worked in 1994, when intelligence suggested than an unconstrained North could have bomb-making material for almost 100 nuclear weapons by 2000," wrote Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official and North Korea expert, in a New York Times op-ed on Wednesday.
"The agreement reached months later prevented that. By the time that accord collapsed, in 2002, the North had enough material for only six weapons. Even limited success is better than none at all," Wit concluded.
Since the April 2009 announcement by North Korea that it would quit the Six-Party Talks and the May 2009 test of a nuclear weapon, there has been little positive headway in creating a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
With the calls for sanctions and censure from Seoul and Washington, it appears that Kim Jong-Il is more isolated than ever and, as indicated by his recent trip to China, increasingly dependent on Beijing for aid.
Lee and a South Koran delegation’s state visit to Beijing last month didn’t receive as much attention as Kim Jong-Il’s secretive trip earlier this month, but it did offer some insights into where the future of China’s foreign policy might lie.
Trade between South Korea and China is booming and Beijing will be weighing its options when it chooses between standing behind a historic ally who is becoming an ever greater liability and a trading partner who seeks to expand its relationship with Beijing.
(Inter Press Service)