President Lee Announces Weak Response to Cheonan Sinking

We have always tolerated North Korea’s brutality, time and again. We did so because we have always had a genuine longing for peace on the Korean peninsula…. But now things are different. North Korea will pay a price corresponding to its provocative acts,” he said. “I will continue to take stern measures to hold the North accountable. — President Lee Myung Bak

After this, President Lee explained that his government will adopt the following measures as a response to North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan:

1. Take North Korea to the U.N. Security Council and spend a lot of diplomatic capital to get China to abstain from our draft of a “very angry letter” that China will just ignore anyway. Insert mandatory clip:

Now, I suppose it’s possible that the resolution to come may include some really tough enforcement provisions — such as authorization to board ships on the high seas, or a ban on mineral exports — that will be even harder for China to circumvent, but China has hardly slowed its support for Kim Jong Il and its facilitation of his proliferation activities since UNSCR 1874 passed. If South Korea and the United States are really serious about getting China’s attention, they’re going to have to get serious about things that China cares about more than any U.N. resolution: imposing trade barriers on Chinese imports, freezing the assets of Chinese companies and banks that funnel aid to North Korea, helping Taiwan to nuke up, and beginning talks on the establishment of a regional missile defense shield that would include Taiwan, and destabilizing North Korea. China can’t have it both ways forever.

2. Halt all trade with North Korea, but with the exception of the Kaesong Industrial Park, an exception that swallows the rule.

“North Korea’s trade with the South has accounted for up to 38 percent of its total trade volume and makes up 13 percent of its gross domestic product. With the dollars obtained through inter-Korean trade, the North has expanded its businesses with China. It (the trade with the South) also helped Pyongyang to cushion any negative external risks such as sanctions by Japan, while acquiring dollars needed to govern the country,” the report said.

“If we push for a measure to suspend the trade, it could translate into a decline in its trade with China and make it tough to find other business partners as a result, dealing a direct blow to its regime by blocking it from obtaining dollars,” it added. The report noted that a trade ban by the Seoul government would have a maximum level of impact if China follows suit, which it expects could place Pyongyang under a situation where “it has to think about its life or death.” [Yonhap]

The author then paused to exhale the lungful of smoke he’d been holding as he wrote that entire passage.

3. Expand South Korea’s participation in John Bolton’s Proliferation Security Initiative, though the details of that cooperation remain to be seen.

4. Conduct joint anti-submarine drills with the U.S. Navy. Horse, barn, door.

5. Close the Jeju Strait to North Korean shipping, meaning that North Korean ships will have a slightly longer trip between the east and west coasts.

6. Turn on the loudspeakers at the DMZ, a conspicuously stoopid idea. Ditto the large electronic sign boards. This isn’t 1970, and the small number of North Korean troops at the DMZ who will hear or see those messages are the best trained, most disciplined soldiers in the North Korean army. Sure, a few have defected in recent years, but why just poke Kim Jong Il in the eye absent a prospect of having any real subversive effect? Technology provides the means to reach far more North Koreans to far greater effect today. For example, South Korea could put up a tall antenna just south of the DMZ, broadcast a cell phone signal to North Korea, and then dump tens of thousands of cheap phones on the North. Bye-bye information blockade. And we haven’t begun to talk about flooding the North with radios, MP4 players, and cash to stimulate markets and smuggling. For its part, North Korea says it will shoot at the loudspeakers:

“If the group of traitors challenges the just reaction of (North Korea), this will be followed by stronger physical strike to eliminate the root cause of the provocations,” he said, arguing his troops are enraged by the sight of South Korean equipment.

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. On February 2, 2010, President Obama decided not to restore North Korea to the list. Discuss among yourselves.

On a slightly more promising note, the South is also saying it will also send leaflets to the North by balloon detailing the result of the Cheonan investigation. I’m not sure this is going to cause much grief or outrage among the North Koreans who read the leaflets. Still, it’s good to see South Korea finally dip its toe back into the information operations business again. There are so many more promising things the South can do if it really gets serious about this.

If this is all that President Lee intends to do, North Korea will have gotten away with murder, and Lee’s warning that “[f]rom now on, the Republic of Korea will not tolerate any provocative act by the North and will maintain a principle of proactive deterrence,” will fail to reestablish deterrence. Frankly, it’s difficult to see what good Kaesong is really doing for South Korea today. Clearly, it’s not going to attract substantial new investment or become a manufacturing center for exports. I can understand that President Lee wouldn’t want to shut the place down while there are still potential hostages up there, but you’d think that if Lee intended to shut the place down, he’d have made those arrangements before this announcement.

Fortunately, this doesn’t appear to be a complete list yet. Lee is sending his diplomats out to push as hard as they can for diplomatic support from China, Russia, and a whole cast of characters. But as long as South Korean money continues flowing into Pyongyang, it’s going to be difficult to ask other countries to do what’s really going to hurt Kim Jong Il’s regime and constrict its finances sufficiently that it will be unable to feed its army and pay its bureaucracy.

For its part, the Obama Administration is reviewing “existing authorities and policies” with respect to North Korea, which has to mean, at a minimum, that North Korea goes back on the terror list, although this would hardly be a complete response by itself. Unfortunately, Secretary of State Clinton is already talking like the United States will slow down the transfer of operation wartime control to ROK forces. And while I agree that this probably isn’t an especially good time to signal withdrawal or disengagement from Korea, one lesson we’ve learned from the Cheonan incident is that South Korean military dependence is more conducive to complacency that it is to a capable and vigilant defense. The United States can provide better support to the South from the air and sea than with vulnerable, forward-deployed ground forces. Above all, we can help South Korea improve its own self-defense capabilities, capabilities that were allowed to deteriorate under ten years of leftist rule.


  1. IO (information Operations) is the main effort in 21st century warfare. Its now what you blow up or who you kill, but the messaging that accompanies it. KJI knows this and is kicking the ROK’s collective @$$ in this regard.

    The US also knows better but is content to view the DPRK as a conventional USSR-era threat, even though NK is fielding a massive guerilla force to fight the ROK Iraq-style.

    Until the DPRK creates a crater in Seoul or accomplishes some other major act of aggression, the ROK will continue its sheepish pursuit of a hollow ‘peace’ in order to pursue economic power and prestige. It took a decade to lull SK to sleep with Sunshine Policy, and it will take longer than 2 years and 46 KIA to wake them up again.


  2. More on the tepid response:
    AP headline: With US support, SKorea cuts trade with North

    Fine print:

    Imports of sand and other goods will be halted, and North Korean cargo ships will be denied permission to pass through South Korean waters, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said.

    The biggest source of trade — a joint factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong where some 110 South Korean firms employ about 42,000 North Koreans — will remain open, Hyun said.

    Seriously, if you were KJI, would this response worry you?


  3. I wonder if they could get Japan to go along with banning NK ships from their shipping lanes and territorial waters. Would that close off enough waters that NK ships would have to sail up the russian coast to get around Japan and up the chinese coast to get from west-east?

    One response that I haven’t seen but would be very nice would be to sink KJI’s fleet of yachts. I would love to see the KCNA blurb on that story.


  4. I love your blog, I really do, and I understand it’s all opinion and that you’re obviously disappointed with previous administrations and the “Sunshine” policy, but when you litter throughout your articles (as in your manifesto) condescending remarks about left-leaning people like “leftists”, it turns off a certain part of your audience. I would consider myself left-leaning, but I basically agree with most of what you’re saying in your articles so I don’t understand why you should find it necessary to blanket call “leftists” in such a negative tone, like they don’t know what they’re ever doing. I think it would be more productive to leave out little shots like that and stick to the facts: what administrations did what, and then as you wish, your opinion about their policies or what have you. I’m not really that perturbed, I guess enough to write this comment, I just think political rhetoric and name-calling on an across-the-board “idealogical” scale is wrong and shouldn’t have its place in your blog. That’s my opinion though, so carry on, and I’ll continue to read and internally analyze your articles and opinions.


  5. If I was a citizen of China, I would be laughing right now. What? No more sand for Kim Jong-il’s sandbox? Ha哈ha哈ha哈ha!

    If I was a citizen of South Korea, I would be sad right now. What? No more sand for North Korea? Is that the best we can do to avenge the Cheonan?

    If I was a citizen of North Korea, I would be starving right now. What? No more sand for breakfast?

    If I was a leftist citizen of USA, I would be confused right now. What ? No more sand for North Korea? Why does North Korea need sand anyway?

    If I was a right wing citizen of USA, I would be replaying that Team America clip for the umpteenth time right now. What? (*Imitating Kim’s animated voice*) “You’re breaking my balls Hans, you’re breaking my balls!”


  6. I like the idea of sinking Kim Jong Il’s yachts. That will certainly make him more sad than killing Korean People’s Navy sailors. Stealing some of yachts, selling them to collectors and using the funds to smuggle mp4 players into North Korea would be really great!

    Jason does have a point about the so-called Korean “leftists.” While the Democratic Party (Minjoo) and other political leaders have made a fool of themselves over the Cheonan attack, they do not represent the whole spectrum of progressive politics in Korea.

    Left leaning Roh Moo Hyun actually had some pretty sensible military policies, while some of Lee Myung Bak’s policies have been callous. Particularly callous was issuing a permit to build a 100-story skyscraper that blocks the flight path of an emergency military airfield – something both DJ Kim and Roh had not allowed for years.

    Also, there are many progressives in Korea who have been working for the liberation of North Koreans.


  7. Don’t boil over yet, Jonathan. Your recent extremely good articles in the New Ledger show there are many ways to skin the North Korean cat. They don’t all have to be taken at once.

    It seems as if the South Korean government is unified in the application of slow force, incrementally. Daily NK today suggests Kaesong is being closed down. Mrs. Clinton in China is probably also delivering a message to China, that it is time to start withdrawing. I think there is a consistent policy of total isolation that is being set up by the “western” governments in such a way that it won’t give Little Kim or Baby Kim or their sections of the Party and Army the excuse to turn a very cold war into a hot one.

    The question is whether China and Russia will join — and last week, the Russians declared a new foreign policy paradigm, which is very much indeed like the speech Obama gave at West Point — for diplomatic co-operation. North Korea is a perfect test platform for a new Russia/USA deal– and one that China might well wish to join.

    Lip service from China can be expected because there are real economic advantages to China’s development of North Korean mines — but the ability to place the North back on the terror list and a professed willingness on our part to identify major Chinese banks (like the Bank of China) as having illegal business with the North could be very persuasive in cutting back the mine and port developments that Little Kim is now so reliant upon to keep China copacetic.

    Of course, this may be wishful thinking — but I don’t think it is.

    A mine could have been an accident: a torpedo was an act of aggression. It’s not too difficult a distinction to make, and it must chill Chinese diplomacy to realize how ineffectual is their control of their puppet state.


  8. I must admit I had a very different take on this (and yesterday, I hadn’t read about Kaesŏng remaining open as a possibility). I think these are very good first steps, in line with what GI Korea and others proposed as very appropriate non-military responses.

    Cutting off trade (even if Kaesŏng is left running) hurts North Korea’s elite, and it leaves Kaesŏng as a further bargaining chip if needed. And if the Japanese get on board (and they might) with similar sanctions, then the North Korean jaunt from coast to coast has suddenly become very long.

    This is not to mention that South Korea has put North Korea on notice that it may just shoot anything that moves across the NLL at this point. You say, “Horse, barn, door,” but there are still other horses in other barns.

    I think we’re getting started, and I think this is promising.


  9. Damn! I need more coffee at 4:20 in the morning. I intended to ask if you meant “Joshua.”

    (Must be the similarity between “Joshua” and “Jason” in Greek that has my wires crossed.)

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *


  10. He either meant Joshua or Jason (the reference to The New Ledger makes me think it’s Joshua).

    In other words, one of them is so upset that their name blew a gasket and landed in a different part of the alphabet.


  11. The only quibble I have with this article regards the loudspeakers on the DMZ.

    Actually, it was one of the things that bothered the North Korean leadership the most. Indeed the troops at the DMZ are elite and loyal – only the Spartans (and absolutely no helots) get can be trusted to serve there. Many are probably the children of the Nomenklatura itself.

    But the South Koreans did not just broadcast propaganda (like the feeble North Korean loudspeakers). They also provided entertainment. The comedy routines and k-pop (all of which I think are the worst abominations of South Korean culture) were actually entertaining for the young Spartans. The North Korean leadership was worried sick about how that k-pop was ruining the minds of their kids – as a Korean parent myself, I sympathize with them in more ways than they will ever realize!

    Former North Korean refugees who were in the KPA have written about this. Some of them say that when President Roh decided to stop the propaganda broadcasts, if he realized how much the North Korean leadership hated the broadcasts on the DMZ, he could have gotten North Korea to move back some of their artillery aimed at Seoul in exchange!

    If done correctly, the loudspeakers can indeed be a powerful weapon.


  12. Spelunker said:

    “If I was a citizen of South Korea, I would be sad right now. What? No more sand for North Korea? Is that the best we can do to avenge the Cheonan?”

    South Korea imports sand from North Korea, not the other way round. At full pelt this can be a significant amount of trade for the North ($73 million in 2008). That’s twice as much as the wages at Gaeseong, although bear in mind that Gaeseong brings in other revenues.


  13. Joshua, there’s a certain sense of “Carthago delenda est ” when you say that George Bush removed North Korea from the state sponsors of terror in 2008. Thanks to your repetition, I no longer even have to look it up to remember that fact. But I wonder how applicable this is in this case. Given the facts, how is this not one country acting belligerent to another, using a military weapon against a military target.

    I guess my main worry is that it leads to confusing acts of terror with acts of war and that can impair how we read/react to a given situation.

    [Joshua responds: Paul, I agree that we should make the terror sponsor list about terrorism and nothing else, which is why I think it was such a mistake for Bush/Rice/Hill to politicize the list by de-listing North Korea as a terror-sponsor as an incentive for its futile nuclear diplomacy. But today, the State Department is pretending that its lawyers have principled objections to re-listing North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism, despite multiple examples of North Korea engaging in clear acts of sponsorship of terrorism since October 2008: the intercepted weapons shipments in Bangkok and the UAE, the assassination attempt on Hwang Jang Yop, and yes, the repeated use of its state broadcasting to threaten South Korea’s civilian population, which also fits the statutory definition of international terrorism. I have not characterized the attack on the Cheonan as terrorism, though it is certainly something terrible. Instead, I refer to North Korea’s latest threat against “the root cause” of South Korea’s response to it, which I can only interpret as a threat against South Korea’s civilian population and/or government.]


  14. If the DPRK destroys the loudspeakers along the DMZ after the ROK resumed broadcasts, then the ROK will destroy the signal jammer stations that block the people of North Korea from recieving news unsanctioned by the state.

    Or so a little bird told me so.

    wishfull thinking and such


  15. North Korea responds to South Korea’s “You’re fired!” by saying “I quit!” Less cryptically: North Korea says it is severing all ties with South Korea.

    And now we have a potential hostage situation in Kaesŏng, methinks.


  16. “And now we have a potential hostage situation in Kaesŏng, methinks. ”

    I wonder if that was behind Lee’s caution regarding closing Kaesong. The fear that they might get stuck in the North – perhaps on some trumped up charge that they were spies.