Questions and tensions remain about the Cheonan

UNITED NATIONS – A few years ago, one would have assumed that today, June 15, would be a day of celebration across the Korean peninsula. Exactly ten years ago, the north’s Kim Jong Il and the south’s Kim Dae-jung-in Pyongyang, marking the first time a South Korean head of state ever visited the North-signed the North-South Joint Declaration, which aimed for greater cooperation between the two states-and eventual reunification.

Today that agreement is all but dead, as a war of words-which many fear will escalate into a full-scale war-escalates between the two sides. The south accused the north of carrying out the March 26 sinking the warship Cheonan, which killed 46 soldiers, and North Korea is threatening military retaliation.

Regional neighbors such as China and Russia, alarmed at the prospects of an escalation in tension, have urged both sides to cool their rhetoric.

Still, at a press conference held here today, Sin Son Ho, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN said that if the Security Council were to take any action against the North, “follow up measures will be carried out by our military forces.”

Like many in South Korea, Sin called into question the legitimacy the Joint Investigation Committee, which was set up by the S. Korean government to look into exactly what happened to the Cheonan. Its finding, that a North Korean submarine torpedoed the warship, is the basis for South Korea’s referral of the matter to the UNSC.

Many questions have been raised about the JIC. The UK, he said, has not answered whether or not its scientists were there as individuals or as state representatives; Sweden announced that its scientists had only acted as technical advisers and had no input into assigning blame. Other countries’ statements have raised questions as well.

Sin put forward other arguments to bolster the case for the North’s innocence in the matter:

  • The Cheonan had anti-submarine capability
  • The South Korean and U.S. warships in the area, with their state-of-the-art capabilities, should have been able to detect any North Korean submarine
  • Part of the evidence that the torpedo was North Korean was based upon North Korean script on a recovered part of the torpedo-though, according to some experts, there is no way that the writing should have survived, given that the explosion was big enough to break a huge warship into pieces

Sin further argued that the timing was suspicious. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak announced the findings the same day that local elections were to begin in his country, possibly to strengthen his Grand National Party’s hand. Further, around the same time, the U.S. had been leaning on Japan to relocate an unpopular military base on Okinawa.

Also, chair of the south’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Lee Sang-eui resigned after reports surfaced that he was either drunk or sleeping off a hangover while the Cheonan sunk and then forged documents to show that he was present at the site of the sinking.

Though evidence that the ship was sunk by accidental friendly fire and not the north appears to be mounting, and a large section of the South Korean public seems to agree, North Korea appears to be painting itself into a corner and alienating allies with rigid demands.

North Korea says it will not trust the results of any investigation aside from one done by a team from its Military Defense Commission, though it is highly unlikely that the South would allow northern military officials in. The north rejected a Chinese proposal, which would likely be accepted by the south, for an investigation headed up by the Military Armistice Commission, set up at the end of the Korean War.

Even those who agree that the North has been unfairly accused, and are opposed to U.S. dominance in the area, have taken umbrage at the north’s inflammatory rhetoric, as in a May 30 statement on the official Korean Central News Agency’s website: “We will react with rapid retaliatory strike, mercilessly strong physical strike if the puppet group of traitors shows any slightest sign of ‘punishment’ and ‘retaliation’…”

While the MAC had gone dormant over the years, the UN’s Korean command took up the offer and proposed that China’s People’s Liberation Army be brought back in-and that observers from the (north) Korean People’s Army also be invited.

It seems unlikely the UN Security Council, given China’s and Russia’s status as veto-wielding members, will do anything more than issue a Presidential Statement. It also seems unlikely that relations between the two halves of Korea will return to anything akin to those of the thaw during the era of the Sunshine Policy, ushered in by the Joint Declaration, anytime soon.

Photo: The Joint Security Area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the only spot where South and North Korean forces stand face-to-face. The blue building is the conference room of the Military Armistice Commission. (CC)