The South Korean government has backtracked, albeit carefully, on the likelihood that the Cheonan was sunk, one way or another, by North Korea, saying now that it is a definite possibility. As a result, the likely impact of the Cheonan tragedy on inter-Korean relations is being debated by experts.
Kim Tae Young, South Korea’s Minister of National Defense, attended the National Defense Committee of the National Assembly on March 29th, a meeting in which he stated, “Neither the government nor Ministry of National Defense ever stated that the possibility of North Korea being involved in the incident had been discounted. All possibilities should be reviewed and then a conclusion reached.”
This is the first time that a high ranking government official has mentioned the possibility of North Korean involvement in public.
It indicates a change to the prior governmental position, which was to reject rumors of North Korean involvement through quotes such as, “No evidence suggesting North Korea’s involvement has been found” or “There was no movement of North Korean ships near the waters where the incident occurred.”
If North Korea was involved, torpedo attack from a submarine or semi-submersible craft and naval mine are the two possible scenarios. The cause of the explosion will be reveal after the vessel is salvaged and a thorough investigation is made. This process will take considerable time, while proving a link between North Korea and the incident will be no easy task even if the circumstantial evidence is convincing.
South Korean military authorities agree that acquiring evidence in an area of volatile ocean after three days have already passed since the explosion will be difficult.
Currently, North Korea is keeping quiet about the incident, which is a different stance from previous occasions when naval battles occurred in the region. At those times, Pyongyang stated that its actions represented self-defense measures as a result of provocations by the South Korean military.
The assertion that North Korea must not have been responsible for this incident was given based mostly on that fact. However, since the scale of the damage and number of deaths was greater than expected, speculation suggesting that North Korea does not dare claim responsibility is also being put forward.
Either way, the South Korean authorities will have to pay close attention to movements in Pyongyang, because if pending issues like tourism and management of the Kaesong Industrial Complex are resolved before the investigation into the cause of the incident is concluded, it will cause problems.
Regarding this matter, an official in the Ministry of Unification was sat firmly on the fence yesterday, “Numerous rumors as to the cause of the incident are being put forward at the current stage,” he said, “however, there is no evidence of North Korea’s involvement in the incident and it is not an appropriate stage at which to make a statement. Therefore, we need to wait for the results of the Ministry of National Defense investigation.”
However, if the investigation finds that North Korea sank the Cheonan deliberately, the fallout of the event is expected to travel far and wide.
Either way, the response needs to be carefully calibrated. As an anonymous expert with a national policy research institute cautioned in an interview with the Daily NK, “Incremental increases in provocation strength are a typical maneuver witnessed at the end of a dictatorship. Such maneuvers are likely to be repeated until the collapse of the system; therefore the South Korean government’s accurate understanding of the situation and a statement of firm volition is very important.”
“A clear explanation and apology, a demand that it never happen again and also a temporary halt to inter-Korean relations are required.”