Amid the otherwise lull on the issue, Time Magazine in the August 30 issue quoted a SecDef slip of the tongue (or not if you are of the opinion that Gates is a deliberate man) regarding a possible motivation for the sinking. It was one that I have yet to hear. Who knows whether or not there is any intelligence to suggest there is any truth to the implication, but circumstances and the values surrounding the regime in North Korea made me think “hey, that makes some sense.” Maybe it is just the conspiracy junky in me, but the suggestion that the sinking of the Cheonan was some kind of military rite of passage for “Dear Leader’s” son and successor caught my attention.
If this were true—Junior set out (or was pushed) to prove to daddy that he is worthy of not only his unconditional love but also his throne and those shaft shades—then where does this “act of military provocation”, as South Korea’s Lee initially declared it, fall in the politics of violence: coercion or deterrence?
Coercion would require that the attack was meant to elicit a response. This is not limited to military reaction. It is unlikely that North Korea would want to bait South Korea into another Korean war. Kim Jong Il would be a fool to… never mind. There are also potential desired responses in the diplomatic arena. Dear Leader and his closest friends have been living off of a steady diet of nuclear hush money for some time now. The usual game is the DPRK starts talking about its nuclear program and then promises to make some concession on its desire to be taken serious as a nuclear power in exchange for some aid money (which buys a lot of Hennessy). Or more recently, American hostages are taken, forcing the US to give legitimacy to his authority by sending special envoys featuring former US presidents.
Sinking the Cheonan is a step up in that it involves more risk than the past attention seeking behavior. It is a risk to both compeller and compellee. The risk to North Korea is that South Korea and friends might respond in kind with violence—a capacity for which South Korea outweighs North Korea. The risk for South Korea entails a scenario where the violence escalates into another Korean war with China and the US play the puppeteer roles. World War III just so Generalissimo’s lil Cub Scout can earn his battle badge. Whether this little exercise was designed to incite war or appeasement depends on how sane one deems Kim to be.
Deterrence is much simpler in that it grants slightly more rationality to North Korean leadership—present and future. Simply, it was the first exercise of probable others asserting the heir-apparent’s military prowess to ensure that no one gets any ideas about Korean unification when Senior hands over power. Not to mention a “stay out of my back yard” warning for future military exercises in the area. Since the US denied a ROK request to include the USS George Washington for their posturing exercise near the original sinking site, I’d say this deterrence was at least moderately effective.
It all depends on motivation. The fact that no one seems to know the how the message was intended to be received is an indication that whether deterrence or compellence—the message failed. Or maybe the confused diplomatic fallout is a double win for North Korea. The lesson most in the US gleamed is that Kim Jong Il is irrational…or crazy—crazy like a fox.
The Time Magazine article titled it as “North Korea’s Mafia Moment” relating the corvette sinking to throwing a brick through a window. I would equate it more as the act of a petulant child who bites the neighbor kid to get the otherwise occupied parents to come running into the room. I suppose that is compellence in its most infantile form.