A Crisis in the Making

The sinking of a South Korean ship is just the latest of North Korea's provocations.

South Korea has concluded that a close-range external explosion, most likely from a torpedo, is responsible for the sinking of its ship on March 26, killing at least 40 of their sailors. North Korea has denied responsibility, but it is just another provocation by the Kim Jong-Il regime that is focused on starting a major crisis.

South Korean military-intelligence has written a report that says it is “certain” that the North Koreans were involved in the attack. In a sign that better intelligence is being collected on the North than is often assumed, the Defense Intelligence Command sent a report to the navy in the weeks prior to the attack warning that the North was going to use small suicide submarines in an attack.

In this scenario, a midget submarine would have gotten close to the target and launched the torpedo, destroying itself and the Cheonan, or the submarine would destroy itself after the initial attack in order to kill the ship’s crew as they tried to escape. The latter scenario is less likely because there are no reports of two explosions. It is also possible that the attacking submarine did not destroy itself. Further excavation to try to find remnants of a suicide submarine could shed light on what exactly happened.

The South believes that North Korea launched the attack in retaliation for its defeat in a naval clash back in November. Defectors claim that Kim Jong-Il hatched the plot himself and 13 commandos were involved. One says he was told by a North Korean military officer that Kim Jong-Il personally visited a naval base in February where he called for an act of retaliation.

The exact submarine involved may have already been pinpointed. The chairman of the National Assembly’s Defense Committee says that the location of one of North Korea’s Shark-class submarines on the day of the attack remains a mystery. Originally, the U.S. and South Korea downplayed suggestions of the North’s involvement, pointing to the fact that the Cheonan did not detect a torpedo, but North Korea does have acoustic torpedoes that can defeat a ship’s radar.

The reasoning behind the attack is greater than revenge. North Korea periodically provokes crises as part of its attempts to hold the regime together and gain international attention and concessions. Kim Jong-Il’s declining health and the decreasing grip on the population makes the creation of a crisis all the more vital for the regime, but it has a few cards left to play.

Jon Herskovitz of Reuters predicted this upping of the ante on March 17, writing that “he [Kim Jong-Il] lacks a game-changing ace to play that would seriously rattle the international community or spook markets long used to his grandstanding. Unless he is prepared to sail dangerously close to provoking a suicidal war.” Attacking a South Korean warship as an act of retaliation for recent “aggression” fits perfectly in this scenario as it is a tactic not previously used but is unlikely to provoke a war that would threaten the regime.

Other actions taken recently by North Korea clearly show that the attack on the Cheonan is part of a systematic attempt to raise tension and take center stage. On April 4, the regime claimed that South Korean soldiers had crossed the border and opened fire. Last week, two North Korean agents were arrested in South Korea before they could murder a high-level defector living there.

On April 23, North Korea announced that it was going to seize five properties owned by South Korea at the Mt. Kumgang resort jointly operated by the two countries. The dispute over the resort began in 2008 when the South stopped offering tours after a tourist was killed by one of the North’s soldiers. At the same time, it’s being reported that North Korea is preparing to carry out its third test of a nuclear weapon in the next two months, just in time for the South’s regional elections in June. The South claims there is no intelligence to verify the report, however.

South Korea and the U.S. are now in a tricky spot. The U.S. can and should place North Korea back on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The training and deployment of suicide bombers and assassins clearly is an act of terrorism, even if North Korea isn’t Islamic. North Korea’s support for Hezbollah also makes it a state sponsor.

South Korea has said they will retaliate by acting through the international community, presumably by going to the United Nations. Further sanctions are unlikely. A U.N. demand that the North pay a certain amount of money is possible, but is hardly the type of punishment that will satisfy the South Koreans’ demand for retribution.

Aggressive action will be demanded by the voters who go to the ballot boxes in June, but such limited action seems to be what Kim Jong-Il wants. A response that escalates the situation but doesn’t really hurt the regime will only encourage North Korea to continue to use this tactic, yet ignoring them will only make them try even harder to create a crisis. It seems that, no matter what the West does, North Korea will inevitably keep trying to one-up its previous provocation. As long as Kim Jong-Il or one of his sons rule, this will be the pattern of behavior.