UN Unlikely to Deliver on North Korea Sanctions

Very few South Korean analysts believe United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea for the March 26 sinking of the South Korean Naval corvette Cheonan will help shorten the life of the regime in Pyongyang, whatever the UN delivers, although top officials apparently do.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is not an expert on foreign affairs. He favors Cold-War anti-communist rhetoric similar to that of the radical right. His aides appear to assume that a policy of diplomatic isolation through global cooperation will automatically bring about economic isolation as well. However, the prospects for bold sanctions are extremely grim. The effort and timing to limit the communist regime's radius of action is meaningless unless China, the North's umbilical guardian, endorses it.

A former high-ranking official jokingly said South Korea's diplomats may look like they have been playing the piano for decades but they can't manage a song as simple as ‘Chopsticks.' South Korean diplomacy resembles a small and decrepit station in a remote village where trains no longer stop. In short, the isolation strategy is tantamount to diplomatic failure, even if officials of the Lee regime might not like to hear that.

The idea that the hopeless and troubled regime could be handled diplomatically was only a hope. Instead of building confidence in South Korea's government, the inane hope further undermines it. Numerous briefings and additional explanations attempting to tie the North to the sinking were neither effective nor satisfactory. Although a multinational team of investigators led by South Korea wasted no time providing direct and inescapable evidence of North Korea's culpability to the member states of the Security Council, it was clear from the start that the Lee government's optimism would turn out to be a flat balloon. In other words, South Korea's diplomacy, obsessed as it is with Cold War mentality, is unlikely to pass muster at the Council's cattle show.

The North Korean ambassador to the UN, Sin Sun-ho, also seemed to linger in self-hallucination. The envoy had accused South Korea and the United States of capitalizing on the tragic incident to overcome their respective political troubles, the local elections in the South and the withdrawal of a US military base from Okinawa in Japan.

Unlike the late Kim Il-sung, who allegedly apologized for the failed actions of the North Korean commando team that attempted to assassinate then South Korean president Park Chung-hee in 1968, it is highly unlikely that Kim Jong-il will apologize, given that at a summit meeting with the Chinese president Hu Jintao, Kim reportedly denied his involvement in the sinking of the warship.

In a similar context, President Lee himself politely asked his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao during a May 28 Blue House meeting to join him punishing the North, since there were, in reality, few options to embarrass Pyongyang. It's no secret that China feels uneasy over the shift of the Lee government's foreign policy to the right, meaning into closer alignment with the United States. Wen brushed him off, wasting no time emphasizing the importance of peace and stability on the peninsula. China already signaled a willingness to work with the North on its desire to begin setting its own ‘inspection team,' leaving Lee at risk of becoming isolated in his demands over the North. China has even reportedly passed along to the United States the North Korean leader's clumsy claims that the North was not involved in the incident.

China's foreign policy is aligned with what the North now increasingly seems to want. China has been tone-deaf, intent on continuing to improve relations with the increasingly brittle regime. As Abba Eban, the former Israeli foreign minister, put it, China acts as if "men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives." China's reluctance seems likely to harden South Korea's skepticism about a United Nations resolution on North Korea.

On cue, the US President Barack Obama said on June 28, at a press conference after meeting with Hu in the G-20 meeting, that he wants China to support sanctions in the Security Council. Obama said he hoped Hu would recognize that the incident as an example of North Korea overstepping the line. The Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan also asked China to make a "necessary" condemnation of the sinking, after the G-8 leaders, on June 27, issued a statement condemning the attack. There is little doubt that has encouraged South Korea, to say nothing of President Lee and his foreign and defense aides.

Lee's ideology seems to be harder-bitten than that of his generals. While some people think the Lee government is coming across as weak and indecisive, others point out that partisan people at the ideological extreme ends of the right and the left seriously ossified the inter-Korean relationship. Unlike optimistic conservatives who think there is always an unsustainable feel about the Kim regime, large numbers of moderates estimate that Seoul at the UN is essentially powerless. There are three reasons.

First, the Lee government made the mistake of hurriedly bringing the Cheonan case to the Security Council without considering concrete prior diplomatic means to attempt to persuade China and Russia, the North's patrons, to adopt tougher penalties than erstwhile sanctions. Given that South Korea's diplomacy largely gravitates toward its relationship with the US, China's and Russia's reactions are no surprise.

Second, the validity of the report on the sinking is being challenged from within South Korea itself. The opposition and liberal civic groups are driving the Lee government into a corner by charging that the report has many flaws. Liberal civic groups, both at home and abroad, sent independent letters to the UN. The dispute raises questions over whether the conclusion of the findings was the best weapon. Political opponents assert that the Lee government should have dismissed the arguments by ideological rivals. They find the right-wing government too loose to reinforce its claims on the issue and unable to calmly analyze all the available evidence and intelligence.

These liberal pundits view the report as a kind of travesty but their sureness irritates people on the street. Their ingrained skepticism is thus treated as self-righteous, blurring the boundaries between inescapable facts based on science and second-guessing based on rumor. The Lee government regards the critics as steeped in a ‘Blame South Korea First' flower-child culture.

Third, neither the South Korean Defense Minister nor the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-- both are from the Army, virtually monopolizing the whole military debate -- was aware of what had happened to the Cheonan for almost 30 minutes. The Lee government's performance in handling the case has been hamstrung by the military's continuing reversal of various announcements. Like the broken warship, the military was, too, torn away at the time. The military authorities' subsequently zigzagged briefings became fodder for both political opponents at home and pro-North Korea countries abroad.

International communications satellites (INTELSATs) closely monitor signals to North Korea from a large American listening post at Osan Air Base in South Korea. It is safe to say that the United States might have strongly hinted or explained to China what its national security agency civilians and numerous US Army, Navy and Air Force military signals intelligence (Sigint) specialists had collected and identified. There is no clear picture of what role Kim Jong-il himself played in the attack, though.

So apparently South Korea has little choice but to drop its warlike mode of diplomacy. The government had a diplomatic position on what the inter-Korean relationship would look like in the wake of the Cheonan sinking, but so did every cabdriver in Seoul, with about the same effect. If Lee and his aides are puzzled by the motivations behind the attack, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, educate them about the details of espionage tradecraft and add to the volume of information they have about the North.

Inevitably, the Cheonan case will likely remain an inter-Korean issue rather than an international one. The upshot is that China should join global efforts to soften the hawkish Kim regime, while at the same time discrediting a widespread South Korean belief that Beijing opposes the evidence in an inapposite manner. China has done so before. History tells us that in the immediate aftermath of Rangoon bombing on October 8, 1983 in which a group of South Korean high-ranking officials was killed, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was furious at Pyongyang, refusing to see any North Koreans for weeks afterward. This time China should do something more as well.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for peace and Cooperation in Seoul.