The Conundrum of the South Korean Corvette (II)

© RIA Novosti . Ivan ZahartchenkoS. Korea's Cheonan corvette
S. Korea's Cheonan corvette - Sputnik International
The report on the sinking of S. Korea's Cheonan corvette with the claim that the tragedy had been caused by a torpedo fired by a N. Korean submarine caused further escalation on the Korean Peninsula.

This story by Alexander Vorontsov, Head of Korea Department of the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Science, Strategic Culture Foundation expert and Oleg Revenko, Political analyst , Strategic Culture Foundation expert, was published in International Affairs magazine.

The report on the sinking of S. Korea's Cheonan corvette with the claim that the tragedy had been caused by a torpedo fired by a N. Korean submarine caused further escalation on the Korean Peninsula. On May 24, S. Korean President Lee Myung-bak made accusations against N. Korea, demanded apologies, and declared that S. Korea would suspend contacts and economic relations with Pyongyang, debar N. Korean ships from entering S. Korea's territorial waters, and resume the propaganda broadcasting via loudspeakers at the border between the Koreas. It is generally a decided matter that the Cheonan incident dossier will be submitted to the UN Security Council.

Predictably, Pyongyang paid in kind. Rejecting any connection to the sinking of the Cheonan corvette, N. Korea charged Seoul with forging evidence and announced a new policy aimed at phasing out of the relations with South Korea and annulling their legal basis built over the past years. Pyongyang also threatened to suppress the loudspeakers at the border by “point fire” and stressed that any steps infringing upon N. Korea's sovereignty would meet with “full-scale war” and “unlimited use of force”.

The current escalation on the Korean Peninsula is unprecedented. The post-war history of the relations between the two Koreas abounds with painful incidents, but problems were invariably localized and never triggered broader escalations. At the moment the S. Korean administration backed by the US and Japan is clearly seeking to politicize the tragic and still obscure incident.

There is an impression that Lee Myung-bak's team, which was eager from the outset to dump the positive legacy in the inter-Korean  relations, now feels that the time has come. For the first time since the Cold War, we are witnessing a total diplomatic disconnect between N. Korea and S. Korea, and a rebound will likely take years to achieve.

Now the question is what the future holds and what objectives the key players are trying to accomplish. S. Korea's motivation is to invite new UN Security Council's sanctions or at least to exact from the UN condemnations of N. Korea and calls for minimizing the relations with it. The idea seems to be to make the already troubled country face new problems and thus to weaken or even dislodge its current regime.

The current upheaval overshadows the main theme in the Korean Peninsula politics, namely, the prospects for the six-party talks dealing with N. Korea's nuclear program. At this point the question arises naturally what force could have been behind the Cheonan incident and in whose interests it was inflated to become a global problem. S. Korea hardly acted without its patron's blessing.

Notably, the incident took place when China's plan for reanimating the six-party talks started to materialize. The plan encompassing a N. Korea-US summit, an unofficial six-party meeting, and the revitalization of the Beijing dialog seemed to be a point of the international consensus. By the end of March the N. Korean team was ready to fly to the US, and now N. Korea's angriest critics in Washington say Pyongyang's diabolic plan was to torpedo not only the corvette in the Yellow Sea but the whole negotiating process. The theory does not withstand criticism: Pyongyang effortlessly dodged the six-party talks for 18 months and did not have to take the risks and face the consequences.

Alternative explanations that look more logical can be found easily. Preoccupied with Iran and Afghanistan, the US can't focus on the six-party talks. Accordingly, there could be an intention to freeze the negotiating situation under some pretext and, for the time being, rely on sanctions against N. Korea.

There may be a more fundamental agenda behind the current political intrigue: the US priority is to contain China's ambitions on the Korean Peninsula and in the entire region. Washington hopes to  confront China with a difficult choice between N. Korea and the international community. Either option disadvantages China, luring it into a conflict with Seoul and Tokyo or affecting its relations with N. Korea.

President Medvedev said in a phone conversation with Lee Myung-bak that at the moment task number one is to identify the real cause of the Cheonan sinking, and that internationally approved measures should be based on reliable information. Russia sent its own group of experts to South Korea to examine the available evidence and to get familiarized with the investigation results.

The tensions on the Korean Peninsula stem not so much from Pyongyang's “unpredictability and aggressiveness” as from the risky and short-sighted politics of Seoul combined with Washington's tendency to freeze the configuration sustaining tensions in the region at the level helping the US contain both Russia and China.

(Views expressed in this article reflect the author's opinion and do not necessarily reflect those of RIA Novosti news agency. RIA Novosti does not  vouch for facts and quotes mentioned in the story)

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