Geopolitics of Cheonan Incident: North Korea’s Ongoing Struggle against American Power

The Cheonan incident of March 2010, or more precisely the response to it,  has cast a dreadful pall over the Korean peninsula. The prospect of war engulfing the Koreas, and Northeast Asia, which seemed to have been  banished during the administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, has returned.  It has made the subject of this book more relevant than ever before.  The people of Korea, South and North, cannot escape the forces of geopolitics.

Readers of this book are naturally most concerned about what is happening now, and what might happen in the future. But if we are to understand the Cheonan incident, its aftermath, and anticipate what might happen, we must pay attention to the geopolitical context in which it happened, and the history which preceded it.

This book was written five years ago; it described past events, and what were then current events are now slipping into the past.  Moreover the book was written for the general international reader so a Korean may well find that it states the obvious, or gets things wrong.  As a foreigner writing about Korean affairs I am very conscious of the limits of my knowledge and understanding. So let me apologise in advance for my inevitable mistakes

Nevertheless, I think  the book remains valid and useful.  No interpretation in it has been overturned by subsequent events. For instance I expressed great scepticism about the American allegations that the DPRK was pursuing a clandestine weapons programme based on heavy enriched uranium, and that it had admitted to it.

The Americans subsequently watered down those claims and indeed, eight years after the initial confrontation although the DPRK has exploded a couple of plutonium devices, there has been no sign of a uranium-based weapon.  It was this allegation that was used by the Bush administration to ditch the Agreed Framework signed by the Clinton administration.

If that had not happened, and if the United States had implemented its obligations under the treaty, sanctions would have been lifted, normal diplomatic relations established, two light water reactors would be pumping sorely needed electricity into the North Korean grid. Under the terms of the agreement the DPRK would then  have dismantled its mothballed nuclear reactors, and shipped them offshore, and would not have moved on to develop and test nuclear weapons.

Had the Bush administration not abandoned the Agreed Framework, there can be little doubt that the people of Korea, particularly in the North but also in the South, would have been much better off.  The economic crisis in the North, precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, would have been in the process of being solved, and all Koreans, indeed all of Northeast Asia, would have been much safer.

That has not happened, and the Korean peninsula is on the brink of possible catastrophe. This makes it vitally necessary to understand the underlying dynamics of geopolitics in respect of the Korean peninsula. Books are important because they address these issues in a depth not found in other media.  These dynamics often change slowly even through very different actors come on stage.

Change in political actors is a very important factor to consider when attempting to identify drivers of transformation of the geopolitical landscape.  Since this book was written we have had a change in administrations in South Korea, America, and Japan but not in North Korea, China, or Russia.

In particular, we must take note of change in the South Korean government compared with continuity in North Korea.  This suggests that developments in Inter-Korean relations can be attributed mainly to Lee Myung-bak. In October 2007 Roh Moo-hyun met with Kim Jong Il and signed a ‘Declaration for Advancing Inter-Korean Relations and Peace and Prosperity’.  Kim Jong Il is still with us, Roh Moo-hyun is dead, hounded to suicide it is alleged,  and Lee Myung-bak is in the Blue House.

Hopes for Inter-Korean cooperation for peace and prosperity have been dashed, the Kumgangsan tourism venture is stalled (and about to be opened up to Chinese tourists in replacement for South Koreans), the Kaesong industrial park is tottering on collapse, relations between the two Koreas have sunk to levels not seen since the military dictatorships, and war is possible.

Foreign observers, especially Americans, often look the wrong way.  They try and analyse the situation by looking at Kim Jong Il, whereas they should focus on Lee Myung-bak.  Just as Kim Dae-jung was primarily responsible for the improvement of inter-Korean relations in the late 1990s, so Lee is responsible for the plummeting a decade later.

However, whilst we should not underestimate the importance of Korean actors in this drama we must also recognise that this is but part of a wider stage, the American imperium – the global theatre in which the United States does its business, dispensing approval or disapproval, aid or destruction

One of the themes of the book, as graphically depicted by its cover, which features both North Korean and American soldiers, was that this is a struggle between two countries, DPRK and the US. It is not, as is usually the case in both the popular and academic literature, a description of North Korea and its policies, as if it holds the stage alone.

In reality, the US is so much more powerful than the DPRK so whilst there is a mutual interplay, much more attention should be focused on it. It is in Washington that the major struggles happen, not at the Six Party talks in Beijing, or in bilateral US-DPRK negotiations.

This is brought out well by Mike Chinoy, the former CCN reporter, whose book Meltdown documents the internecine struggles within the Bush administration over Korean policy.[i] Whenever Chris Hill, the US negotiator, made a deal with the DPRK, this was overturned by hardliners back in Washington.

But the geopolitical stage is not occupied by the US alone, although it is the principal actor.  There are other players. There is China. China is particularly concerned with stability because it wants to avoid disruptions to its ‘peaceful rise’.

It is apprehensive that tension on the Korean peninsula will promote Japanese remilitarisation and that the development of nuclear weapons by DPRK will stimulate and legitimate Japanese nuclearisation – the barriers to Japan becoming a fully fledged military power comparable to China are political not technological or economic. China does not want a collapse of the DPRK, nor the danger of war with the US

Then there is Japan. Japan, wrestling with its history, has still not found its way in the world. Right wingers such as Abe and Aso thought that playing up the ‘threat from North Korea ’ was the way to advance remilitarisation.  In his election campaign, Hatoyama promised a new, more peaceful and independent posture in foreign policy but has not been able to deliver.  This was highlighted when he buckled to American pressure to break his campaign promise over relocation of the Futenma base in Okinawa in the wake of the Cheonan incident.

Many foreign commentators, with surely more than a touch of racism, claim that DPRK policy is inscrutable, opaque and mysterious.  On the contrary, it is relatively straightforward and consistent, if only  because the options are so limited.

If North Korea is to rehabilitate its economy and become the rich and prosperous country it aspires to be it must persuade the United States to drop its policy of ‘hostility’ and accept peaceful coexistence, and preferably friendly relations. This peaceful coexistence, of course, entails recognising the legitimacy and independence of the DPRK, and abandoning plans to destroy it.

On the face of it, this seems an unobjectionable demand. What is wrong with peace?  To address the question why the US finds it so difficult to accept peaceful coexistence with the DPRK we must analyse the nature of American imperialism. (This will be the leading theme of my next book ‘Imperialism, Korea, and the Making of Contemporary Asia’).

The United States, and its imperialism, is a very complex system with conflicting currents and pressures.  Unlike the DPRK, the US has many options and they are fought over by contesting factions.  Briefly, there are two major reasons why Washington finds it difficult to negotiate peace with Pyongyang.

Firstly, the United States runs a truly global empire, by far the largest in history. Truly independent countries –those, for instance, with no American bases on their soil –  are not to its liking, and it regards small independent countries as intolerable.

To accept peaceful coexistence with the DPRK, whose GDP, and military expenditure is but a tiny fraction of America’s, would send a very dangerous message to other countries, including the Republic of Korea, who might be tempted to assert independence.

Secondly, tension on the Korean peninsula is seen by many as the essential glue that keeps the US-ROK, and US-Japan alliances together in the shared goal of containment of China. Many people thought that the election of Barack Obama would change things, but that ignored the underlying drivers of American imperialism.

In attempting to reconcile the rhetoric of the candidate promising change in foreign as well as domestic policy and the president implementing imperial continuity, Obama is increasingly seen as floundering.  In particular, the Obama policy towards Korea has been incoherent and lacking in purpose and drive.  Many American commentators have deplored the administration’s lack of engagement with Korean affairs.

The progressive administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were instrumental in tempering US policy towards the DPRK, especially during the years of George W. Bush.  Kim Dae-jung’s ‘sunshine policy’ was a recognition that the defusing of military tension, the building of mutual confidence and a movement towards the mutual stimulation and eventual integration of the two Korean economies was the only way forward.

They both understood that to try and bring about the collapse of the DPRK would probably lead to war, with disastrous consequences, South and North. Lee Myung-bak has a radically different approach, as is evidenced by his actions since coming into office and especially by his handling of the Cheonan incident.

It is very regrettable that, in contrast to Kim and Roh, who had a small but moderating influence on US policy, Lee has much more influence, and it is aggressively hostile to engagement and peaceful reconciliation. His words say one thing, his actions another. Taking advantage of the vacuum in Washington, in the White House and State Department (but not perhaps the Pentagon) Lee Myung-bak seems to have captured US Korea policy.

As a former businessman, Lee Myung-bak must be very aware of the damage done to the ROK economy, and its international economic reputation, by perceptions of continuing tension and threat of war on the Korean peninsula There are two courses of action.

Either one can follow the road of Kim Dae-jung, seeking engagement and reconciliation.

Or one can choose the road of confrontation on the assumption that the ensuing crisis will lead to a victory of the ROK, and resolution of the problem with the absorption of the DPRK.  It seems that Lee Myung-bak is choosing the latter, very dangerous, road.

At the time of writing China and Russia are trying to restrain Lee Myung-bak by demanding a proper investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan.  If they succeed in this, and the situation is defused, and if Washington reengages with Pyongyang, then the Korean peninsula will be in for a tense period, but hopefully not a catastrophic one.

If Lee is not restrained then he will be emboldened by his success and will ratchet up tension even more.  It seems that he is attempting to bring about a collapse of the DPRK, thereby enabling the implementation of the ‘contingency plans’, particularly OPLAN 5029 for the invasion of the North.

Even if he does not succeed in precipitating collapse, the situation may become so tense, and North-South relations so bad, that OPLAN 5029 may go ahead anyway.  This would bring about disaster for the Korean people.

I hope that this book, for all its imperfections, may help readers understand the forces at work in, and around, the Korean peninsula and may make a modest contribution to peace and prosperity.


31 May 2010

Dr. Tim Beal is the author of North Korea: The Struggle Against American Power, Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington and the editor of The Pyongyang Report.

Wellington, New Zealand

Chinoy, Mike. Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis: St. Martin’s Press 2008.

[i] Mike Chinoy, Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis (St. Martin’s Press 2008).

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