September 1, 2010  

Flashpoint: Pyongyang provocations

North Korea’s torpedo mischief ripples beyond Northeast Asia

When North Korea makes headlines, it is never good news.For instance, there was the Korean War — certainly not good news. Then there was the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968 and the shooting down of a U.S. Navy EC-121 intelligence plane in 1969. And in 1983 there was attempted assassination of members of the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon.

The list goes on.

And the bad news streak continues, with plenty of new evidence about Pyongyang’s dedicated willingness — and uncanny ability — to stir up trouble not only in its neighborhood, but in other regions of the world.

The most serious provocation of late came this spring with the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, North Korea’s most egregious act of aggression against its neighbor since the end of the Cold War.


On March 26, the Cheonan, a 1,200-ton patrol vessel, was attacked off South Korea’s western coast, killing 46 of the 104 sailors aboard.

While North Korean involvement was suspected, there was no military contact with naval assets of the Korean People’s Army, and the South Korean ship was south of the unofficial Northern Limit Line (NLL), which divides North and South Korea at sea. (The NLL was unilaterally established by U.N. forces in 1953, but has not been recognized by North Korea. The two Koreas have clashed three times along the NLL since 1999.)

Early speculation on the cause of the blast that sunk the Cheonan included an internal explosion aboard the ship, a North Korean mine or even a Korean War-vintage mine that was not recovered after the 1950-53 conflict.

Following the rescue of the surviving crew, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called for an investigation, which began with the location and recovery of the Cheonan’s stern. To avoid claims of bias by the North, the South’s salvage and review of the incident was supported by experts from the U.S., Sweden, the U.K. and Australia.

The subsequent recovery of the ship’s bow led to the first leak of information from Seoul hinting at an external, rather than internal, explosion. A month after the attack, the South Korean Ministry of Defense pointed to a torpedo as the most probable cause. About a month later the official investigation accused North Korea of a torpedo attack against the Cheonan, based upon forensic evidence, reportedly including recovered materials that are similar to a torpedo Pyongyang sells internationally. It is suspected the torpedo may have been launched from a mini-submarine or a semi-submersible, likely under the command of Pyongyang’s covert Reconnaissance General Bureau.

Naturally, North Korea denies involvement, asking the South to explain why only enlisted men were killed, according to press reports. Pyongyang cut its limited ties with Seoul and threatened war — not an unexpected response.

South Korea decided not to retaliate militarily, instead choosing to cut some diplomatic and economic ties, resume some anti-North propaganda, conduct anti-submarine warfare exercises and ban North Korean ships from transiting South Korean waters. U.N. Security Council action, including a resolution of condemnation or additional sanctions against North Korea, is also a possibility, although China’s support for such a measure might be difficult to obtain. South Korea is also reportedly planning a defense review with a greater focus on North Korea, giving a relook to its Defense Reform Plan 2020. Some also think this may reopen for consideration the planned 2012 shift in operational control of Seoul’s forces from the U.S. to South Korean command.

Some criticized the perception of a weak, late response to the North Korean provocation as leaving the attack essentially “unanswered,” concerned that it will only invite more serious, deadly acts on the part of the North. While there is no desire for military escalation, some have suggested closing the joint North-South Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea, putting Pyongyang back on Washington’s state sponsor of terrorism list or going after North Korea’s illicit activities in the international banking system, which they believe would make the response more punitive in nature.


Not surprisingly, the sinking roiled the political waters across the region, especially in Japan, indirectly leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, leaving Tokyo looking for a new leader — again.

In late May, Hatoyama abandoned the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) campaign promise to remove some U.S. Marine Corps air elements from Okinawa, despite a previous U.S.-Japan agreement on the matter that called for relocation rather than removal. Mugged by the reality of the importance of U.S. forces on Okinawa to Japan’s defense in light of the tensions on the neighboring Korean Peninsula, Hatoyama reluctantly reversed course, leading to internal and public bickering among DPJ officials. After the firing of at least one Cabinet member, Hatoyama announced his own resignation in early June, ending a troubled administration that was most noted for its electoral defeat of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, which dominated Tokyo for 50 years.

Less dramatic, but equally interesting, were the Chinese, who have developed a reputation for being increasingly adept, nuanced and influential at foreign policymaking, but this time came off looking quite ham-handed in the aftermath of the sinking of the Cheonan.

China, of course, is considered to be the country with the greatest clout in North Korea. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing replaced Moscow as the most influential foreign capital in Pyongyang. China and North Korea fought shoulder to shoulder during the Korean War and to this day loosely maintain a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance from the 1960s that includes a secretive security annex.

Beijing is also believed to be the largest supplier of foreign aid to Pyongyang, soothing its anxiety about a regime collapse to the south that could lead to large refugee flows north into China. ( A large number of North Koreans live illegally in China.)

As a rising power, China has also worked hard to develop ties with South Korea, looking to establish commercial relationships that would aid Chinese economic growth. Improving ties with Seoul while potentially putting cracks in the U.S.-South Korea alliance is a side-benefit for Beijing, which would probably prefer a divided peninsula to having American forces north of the 38th parallel — and potentially present along the Yalu River.

But while sitting on the fence during the investigation seemed commonsensical for China, Beijing quickly showed some pro-Pyongyang predilections. In early May, President Hu Jintao received North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a secretive visit by train to Dalian in northeastern China. Kim visited factories and was honored at a banquet hosted by a senior official during his first visit to China in four years. China, naturally, said the purpose of the visit was to encourage North Korea — a country that has suffered famine for some 15 years — to embrace economic reform. It also wanted to discuss Pyongyang’s return to the Six Party Talks, hosted by Beijing since 2003 and aimed at addressing the nuclear issue.

Seoul was clearly miffed by the visit, which smacked of approval rather than condemnation for the Cheonan incident. It was made worse by the fact that it came about a week after the visit of Lee to Beijing to confer with the Chinese leadership about it. Japan could not have been happy about China’s relatively warm embrace of North Korea, either. It was hoping for Beijing to rein in Pyongyang but was left wondering if North Korea’s next torpedo will have Japan inscribed on it.


North Korea’s misbehavior is not limited to the sinking of the Cheonan. According to a recent BBC report, a United Nations panel believes North Korea continues to proliferate nuclear and missile technology in contravention to U.N. Security Council resolution 1874, put in place after Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test in 2009.

The seven-member panel asserts in its 47-page report that North Korea is using front and shell companies, willing financial institutions, organized crime and other conspirators to aid missile and nuclear programs in places such as Iran, Syria and Burma.

Pyongyang “has continued to provide missiles, components and technology to certain countries including Iran and Syria … [and] has provided assistance for a nuclear program in Syria, including the design and construction of a thermal reactor at Dair Alzour,” the panel said.

There should be no surprise about North Korea and Iran being involved because both are virulently anti-American. But more specifically, the Iranian Shahab-class medium-range ballistic missile is based on the Korean No-Dong missile, giving Tehran range across the Middle East and into southeastern Europe. It would also not be shocking if the two countries were involved on the nuclear level. Both were the beneficiaries of Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan’s nuclear largesse, and North Korea is where Iran would like to be on the nuclear weapons front.

North Korean nuclear involvement with Syria goes back to at least 2007 when Israel attacked —and destroyed — the nuclear facilities mentioned in the U.N. report. North Korea has also been accused of moving conventional weapons to the Middle East. (U.N. Resolution 1874 also bans conventional weapons transfers.)

Some experts believe this was the intended destination of some 30 tons of conventional weapons seized last December in Thailand, supposedly en route to Iran or Syria with possible trans-shipment to Hamas in the Gaza Strip and or Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to some press reports. While seemingly not as grave as ballistic missiles or nuclear technology, the arming of these groups could lead to greater violence. Some analysts believe a rematch of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel may be in the offing, as the terrorist group continues to rebuild its military strength. Gaza is a powder keg as well.

The most unusual of the countries cited in the U.N. report is Burma, the reclusive Southeast Asia nation run by an 11-member military junta known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Burma has expressed interest in nuclear technology going back to 2000, according to observers. The SPDC’s interest in things nuclear should come as no surprise considering the political tensions Burma has with its neighbors and the military nature of the regime. There have been rumors of a Russian research reactor being built in Burma for some time. Some experts believe North Korea and Burma have signed a nuclear agreement of some sort; Burmese nuclear technicians have received training in North Korea; and, that Naypyidaw (the new capital, replacing Rangoon) may be trading uranium for Pyongyang’s nuclear assistance. Public evidence of these claims is currently slim, but Pyongyang does have a military relationship with Naypyidaw, and is believed to have provided some conventional arms to the Burmese, including possibly short-range SCUD ballistic missiles. Military assistance could extend beyond SCUDs. In April, a vessel with North Korean ties arrived in a port near Rangoon, perhaps completing the journey the Kang Nam never did last June after being tailed by a U.S. destroyer in the Pacific. The Kang Nam was suspected of carrying nuclear technology or other dangerous cargo.


Unfortunately, there is nothing to indicate North Korea will change its belligerent stance anytime soon. That is certainly troubling for its near neighbors, as well as the U.S., which has security commitments in the region. And while many see the Korean War as Cold War history, we must be mindful that North Korea clearly sees it differently. The senseless attack on the Cheonan was a provocative violation of the existing armistice at best — and a hostile continuation of the war at worst.

But it is not just the Korean peninsula that needs focus. One of the gravest dangers is Pyongyang’s proliferation practices beyond Northeast Asia to other volatile regions of the world, including the Middle East, where U.S. interests are vast.

Making matters worse, some national security specialists sense that North Korea’s nuclear capability has changed the security dynamic drastically, leaving the North undeterred by superior U.S. and South Korean conventional forces. Unafraid of conventional retaliation due its nuclear arsenal, the result is a North that may feel emboldened to push the envelope on bad behavior, risking misperception and miscalculation with dire consequences. If that is true, what will North Korea do next to raise the ante in its dangerous game to garner attention, legitimacy and the upper hand on the peninsula? And what should the U.S. and South Korea be doing to prevent it? What of China?

If there is one thing that is clear it is that some new strategic thinking and planning are needed in order to address these questions —and soon. AFJ

PETER BROOKES is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.