There was a time when if you sank another country’s warship, it was universally regarded as a pretty unambiguous act of war.
So what did North Korea think it was doing when, according to a report by a team of international investigators, it fired off a torpedo at a South Korean corvette and sank it with the loss of 46 lives?
Trying to delve into the minds of North Korea’s leaders is a task that has beaten much better brains than mine. But I can at least come up with a few questions that need to be asked, even if I’m woefully short of answers.
First of all, was it a deliberate attack, or a mistake, an accident, or an act of insubordination by an ill-disciplined submariner? If it was the latter, it would be deeply worrying: North Korea is not the sort of place where you want the military running out of control.
Second, if we assume that someone in authority did give the order to fire the torpedo, why?
Third, who was that someone in authority? If it wasn’t the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who is said to be in poor health after reportedly suffering a stroke two years ago, who else could it have been? And, again, why?
And fourth, what will South Korea do about it? After all, no government can sit idly by after 46 of its citizens have perished in an unprovoked military attack.
As I say, I have no good answers, but here are a few salient facts to bear in mind.
First, yes, the attack on the corvette Cheonan last March was an act of war, but, in theory at least, North and South Korea are still at war. An armistice agreement was signed at the end of the Korean war in July 1953, but although it was signed by the UN, the US, North Korea and China, it was never signed by the South Koreans. The two sides did sign a non-aggression pact in 1991.
Second, the most recent naval clash between the two countries, last November in disputed waters of the Yellow Sea, was reported to have resulted in the deaths of one or more North Korean seamen. The March torpedo attack could have been ordered in retaliation.
Third, North Korea has a long history of provocative acts when it wants to attract attention in the hope of persuading others (in this case, presumably, South Korea) to engage directly in negotiations. The current government in Seoul is far less amenable to such contacts than were its predecessors.
And fourth, yet again, all eyes are on China. It is North Korea’s most important ally, but is reported to have been less than impressed by the way Pyongyang has handled the nuclear weapons issue. Kim Jong Il was in Beijing earlier this month, but little is known of what transpired.
All of which will make for a difficult encounter when US secretary of state Hillary Clinton turns up in Beijing this weekend. She’ll want to know what the Chinese know about the Cheonan incident; but it’s doubtful that she’ll learn much. As the New York Times reported yesterday, the report blaming the attack on North Korea “injects a potentially combustible element into [Clinton’s] talks.
Even nearly 60 years after the end of the Korean war, the divided peninsula remains one of the word’s most dangerous potential flash-points. No one knows what will happen after Kim Jong Il departs from the scene, but there have been recent reports of renewed famine in parts of the country and a UN humanitarian aid team is due to visit later this month.
As for the South Korean response, no one seems to be expecting retaliatory military action, although there may well be some noisy sabre-rattling in the form of joint US-South Korean naval exercises, just to remind the North that its neighbours to the south still have some powerful friends.