Trust-building for the Koreas, three years after the Cheonan sinking

Posted on : 2013-03-26 16:57 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
The mysterious warship sinking in 2010 caused a chill in relations that still hasn’t healed

By Park Byong-su and Kim Kyu-won, staff reporters

It was a Friday night on March 26, 2010, when the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan warship choked off inter-Korean relations. They had already been worsening throughout the Lee Myung-bak presidency. Hostility was growing between South and North, with no further opportunities for reconciliation. Two months after the incident, Seoul came out with the so-called “May 24 measures”, which restricted economic cooperation, exchange, and human contact between the two Koreas. In November, North Korea launched an artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island.

Every area of inter-Korean trade was hit hard, save for the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The May 24 measures brought a halt to all general trade, which had stood at US$256 million the year before the incident in 2009, and consignment processing trade, which had amounted to US$497 million. Humanitarian aid to North Korea was restricted to only the most vulnerable segments of the population: infants, pregnant women, and the elderly. Almost every available avenue for interchange and dialogue was shut down.

In their place emerged a vicious cycle of military hostilities and provocations feeding into rising tensions. The surprise attack on Yeonpyeong Island resulted in the deaths of two soldiers and two civilians. The hostilities didn’t end after the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. North Korea launched rockets in April and December of 2012, and conducted a third nuclear test this past February.

South and North Korea both have new leaders now, but the military standoff remains tense. Seoul adopted an “active deterrence” strategy of firing at the commanding forces (corps headquarters) in the event of signs of a North Korean provocation. The linking of unintended clashes with an excessive military response has raised the chances of things escalating into all-out war. South Korea’s Northwest Islands Defense Command (NIDC) was also formed for the systematic, integrated defense of the Northern Limit Line (NLL) region in the West (Yellow) Sea, the so-called “powder keg” of the Korean Peninsula. The number of forces in the command was raised to around 6,000 - an increase of 1,000 - while firepower was beefed up by an order of three or four with K9 howitzers, multiple rocket launchers, and attack helicopters. The South Korean military also brought in more equipment to detect submarines and submersibles. Meanwhile, patrol ships and destroyers with the Second Fleet, which watches over the West Sea region, were equipped with torpedo and acoustics counter measures (TACM) to detect the movement of such vessels.

Another disastrous outcome of the Cheonan sinking was the increased overseas dependency of both sides due to the stoppage of dialogue and the military hostilities. The North Korean economy has become much more dependent on China, which went from accounting to 67% of the former’s trade in 2007, just before Lee took office, to 89% four years later in 2011. Meanwhile, South Korea has become more dependent militarily on the US. In June 2010, three months after the sinking, Lee and US president Barack Obama reached an agreement to push the date for the transfer of wartime operation command to South Korea back from 2012 to 2015. That October, the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee was formed to discuss issues such as the US nuclear umbrella. Recently, an agreement was reached on a localized provocation response plan, which codifies the US forces’ early engagement in a peacetime episode of localized warfare.

Now it is up to newly inaugurated President Park Geun-hye to figure out how to put an end to the destructive antagonisms set in motion by the Cheonan’s sinking.

Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, noted that Park campaigned on “not letting incidents like the Cheonan slide” but also said she would not make a North Korean apology a prerequisite for dialogue.

“If Park does put her ‘trust-building process’ into motion effectively, then these inter-Korean hostilities could potentially develop into something more like trust,” he said.



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