Cheonan the Introduction to Kim’s Second Act

What does it all mean? Why was South Korea attacked by North Korea?

Some say that the Cheonan incident was retaliation for the Daecheong naval battle of November last year, while others say it was related to the succession.

But the underlying reason is different. South Korea and the international community have not yet figured out recent changes to Kim Jong Il’s survival tactics. That is, there have been changes to Kim Jong Il’s international and domestic strategy for survival with which his foes have yet to catch up.

With the collapse of the communist bloc in the 1990s, the North Korean economy went bankrupt, and from then Kim Jong Il’s international and domestic strategy was the Military-first policy, which roughly translates as prioritizing the military economically at home, and then relying on military tensions on the Korean Peninsula to achieve other ends abroad. In other words, developing nuclear weapons and raising military tensions has been a way for the regime to extract economic aid through international negotiations.

To sum up the situation of the last two decades, North Korea went repeatedly down the same track: create military tensions, the first being the nuclear crisis; next, enter international negotiations, in the first case resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework between North Korea and the U.S. and the four-party talks, from which the U.S. and South Korea promised light-water nuclear reactors and economic and energy aid; next, raise military tensions once again, in the second case by developing nuclear technologies and medium-range missiles; next, re-enter international negotiations, in this case the Six-Party Talks, from which the September 19 Joint Statement emerged in 2005 and which resulted in economic aid from the South, the U.S. and China; next, again raise tensions through nuclear tests; and then enter further international negotiations at some point in the middle distance.

However, there have been recent changes to this circle of tensions, negotiations and aid. International negotiations are valuable for the Kim Jong Il regime only while it can obtain aid and raise its military power as a result of them. However, the routine of that cycle started breaking down thanks to the end of support for the Sunshine Policy. The Lee Myung Bak administration and the U.S. Obama administration have pushed Pyongyang to come back to the denuclearization arena and embark on reforms, but Kim sees little benefit in that.

After all, the Six-Party Talks started with the aim of denuclearizing North Korea, so from Kim’s point of view there is no reason to take part in the negotiations since the North has already obtained nuclear weapons. In December, 2009, when Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth visited Pyongyang, a North Korean official reiterated, “We are already a nuclear power, so from now on we want to negotiate a peace treaty with the U.S,” while Kim Young Nam, the Supreme People’s Committee’s Permanent Chairperson, has declared, “The Six-Party Talks are over, forever.”

However, South Korea and the U.S. have no intention of accepting the North’s demand for a peace treaty as long as they know very well that North Korea’s ultimate aim is the complete withdrawal of U.S. Forces from South Korea and the destruction of the military alliance between the South and the U.S.

Therefore, from where Kim Jong Il stands, an intermediate survival strategy is necessary for the aim of guaranteeing his regime’s long-term security.

He has decided upon trying to create a situation in which the U.S. is compelled to start negotiating a peace treaty. The West Sea is the perfect place for Kim to create the international circumstances and conditions to bring this about.

This is because the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West Sea was drawn unilaterally, without North Korean acquiescence, by UN commanders during the armistice negotiations at the end of the Korean War in order to stop the South’s military from advancing northward. At the time, North Korea welcomed the line. However, since the 1970s the North has been insisting that the line is invalid and has tried to turn the area into a troubled region.

Four powers operate in the West Sea; North and South Korea, the U.S. and China. Kim Jong Il believes that by raising military tensions in this sensitive area with reference to the need for peace treaty negotiations, he will eventually take North Korea back safely onto the international negotiations-earning international aid-increasing military tensions on the Peninsula gravy train.

By navigating the Six-Party Talks process over the course of 7 years, Kim Jong Il has succeeded yet again with his brinkmanship strategy. Now, he has chosen the West Sea as the arena for the second round; the peace treaty. The Cheonan sinking signals the opening shot in this new phase of Kim Jong Il’s survival strategy.