Global Insider: South Korea and the Cheonan

Preliminary investigations suggest that a North Korean torpedo caused the sinking of South Korea’s naval ship, the Cheonan, late last month, killing 46 sailors. In an e-mail interview, Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation and an adjunct fellow for Korean Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, assesses the potential significance.

WPR: What are the possible responses we can expect from South Korea?

Snyder: In its response to the sinking of the Cheonan thus far, the Lee administration has consistently attempted to internationalize its response by including American, Australian, and Swedish technical experts as part of the investigating team. The South Korean foreign minister has mentioned the possibility of taking the issue to the U.N. Security Council. South Korea may feel that it can use its standing in the international community to its advantage by bringing international pressure to bear against North Korea, versus handling the issue solely in an inter-Korean context. Such a strategy also constrains the likelihood that South Korea would pursue unilateral military retaliation against the North.

The South Korean government may opt to toughen its rules of engagement on the DMZ, more actively pursue international cooperation under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), and renew restrictions on North Korean passage through waters under South Korean jurisdiction that had been relaxed several years ago when inter-Korean tensions seemed to be easing.

WPR: What impact will the incident have on Korea’s global security ambitions?

Snyder: A longer-term impact of the Cheonan will involve a comprehensive review of South Korea’s defense priorities. Initial reports suggest the need for strengthened crisis management response capacity within the South Korean government. The incident will lead to calls for defense reform, but the current administration still appears reluctant to increase defense spending. South Korean expenditures for expeditionary naval capacity have come under attack, given that the incident reveals unmet self-defense needs closer to home. The army has been on the defensive in recent budget battles but this incident may tilt priorities back to an emphasis on peninsular defense, which would benefit the army and selected naval procurement capabilities. Longer-term, it is likely that a non-governmental expert panel will be created to review the incident and provide recommendations regarding South Korean national defense reforms.

WPR: Will this have an impact on China-North Korea relations?

Snyder: Thus far, the incident has been rumored as a contributing factor to the delay in a much-anticipated visit to China by Kim Jong Il. Definitive proof of North Korean involvement in the incident would put further pressure on China to curtail support for North Korea, especially if South Korea takes the issue to the U.N. Security Council. China neglected to address the issue publicly for some weeks, but has recently expressed condolences and has noted that South Korea has pursued its investigation in a professional manner. Internationalization of the investigation indirectly puts greater pressure on China to accept the credibility of its outcome, versus possible suspicions that might have lingered in the event of a South Korean-only investigation.