North Korea's Mafia Moment

A secret report says the North torpedoed and sank a South Korean ship. With tension rising in the region, what will the U.S. do?

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Shin Young-Geun / Yonhap / Reuters

As part of the investigation, the wrecked Cheonan was reassembled

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To understand the tension between Seoul and Washington, it's important to appreciate a salient truth. South Korea is not now — and has not been for years — a poor country ruled by generals that is uniformly grateful to the U.S. for rescuing it from a communist invasion 60 years ago. It is an increasingly prosperous nation and boisterous democracy, a place where relations with the North are a core and contested political issue. Thousands of North Korean artillery batteries are trained on Seoul, just 40 miles (64 km) away. The possibility of yet another Korean war is not just a talking point. For that reason, even in the wake of an episode like the sinking of the Cheonan — which might have benefited hawks — the politics of North-South relations got complicated very quickly.

The political left in South Korea is not so much pro — North Korea (though small elements of it are) as it is deeply suspicious of the ruling Grand National Party — the political descendants of the generals who ran South Korea when it was a repressive military dictatorship, until the late 1980s. In the wake of the Cheonan sinking, some academics and scientists, both in South Korea and abroad, as well as an army of Netizens in tech-savvy Seoul, began to poke holes in some of the information the government released. Seung-Hun Lee, a physicist at the University of Virginia who ran his own controlled experiments, said materials found on the Cheonan were "not the result of any explosion," as the government asserted. The government's conclusions, Lee says, "were absurd."

Those who helped put together the government's detailed report are contemptuous of the critics — "amateurs," is what MIT-trained Rear Admiral Thomas J. Eccles, who led the U.S. investigative team, called them in a briefing for reporters. But in South Korea, the amateurs gained some traction in part because the Cheonan sinking came in the midst of a political season: local elections were due on June 2. On May 24, Lee gave a somber speech in front of a war memorial in Seoul. "Once again," he said, "North Korea violently shattered our peace. The sinking of the Cheonan constitutes a military provocation." The effect of these words was to scare the wits out of a fair number of middle-of-the-road South Koreans — particularly younger voters who have done their mandatory two-year military service but now fret they might be redrafted to fight. They — and their parents — voted in droves and handed a surprise victory to the opposition.

Despite that political rebuke, Lee still wanted combined South Korean and U.S. forces to make a significant show of naval strength in the wake of the sinking. Some within the South Korean government, presidential adviser Kim acknowledges, wanted the exercises to occur close to where the Cheonan went down, and some also hoped Washington would contribute an aircraft carrier — the U.S.S. George Washington.

Beijing reacted furiously to both possibilities — in particular the prospect that a nuclear-powered U.S. Navy carrier would be part of an exercise in China's backyard. China's reaction quickly got Washington's attention. Defense Secretary Gates publicly said no decision had been made on the carrier deployment. And though the George Washington did take part in the exercises, which concluded July 29, they were conducted in the Sea of Japan, nowhere near where the Cheonan sank.

A surprise political setback for South Korea's governing party, a tepid U.N. statement and military exercises that might have been something less than hawks in both Seoul and Washington liked: that, up to August, was the "price" North Korea paid for its alleged act of aggression.

The fallout, however, may not yet be complete. Though the North has just launched an official Twitter feed, trying to fathom how to impact the regime is a mug's game. But Washington is preparing financial sanctions of the sort that infuriated Pyongyang during the last Administration. They will restrict access to U.S. capital markets by any financial institution that does business with North Korean companies and any organization thought to be controlled by top officials in Pyongyang. Moreover, there will be joint U.S. — South Korea naval exercises at some point near where the Cheonan went down — at a "time of our choosing," Lee's adviser Kim says.

And that's before the report is published. Its details, however they are challenged, will reinforce an uncomfortable question for Beijing and Moscow: Why do these governments carry water for a regime like Kim Jong Il's? For the U.S. and Lee, the question will be hardly less pointed: If the North, as the report insists, sank the Cheonan, what does that say about the possibility of another war breaking out in Korea? Gates worried aloud recently about the succession that is apparently now taking place in North Korea, from Kim Jong Il to his favorite son Kim Jong Un. "I have a sneaking suspicion," said Gates, "that Kim Jong Il's son has to earn his stripes with the North Korean military. And my worry is that that's behind a provocation like the sinking of the Cheonan ... We're very concerned that this may not be the only provocation from the North Koreans."

That's a depressing thought, to be sure. But given the mild consequences dished out to Pyongyang in the wake of the Cheonan affair so far, why should Kim and company stop throwing bricks?

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