South Korea Odd Man Out in Cheonan Outcome

Many of us suspect that, given the lack of proof, the light South Korean warship the Cheonan wasn’t sunk by a North Korean missile. But, whatever we think occurred, North Korean culpability is, by consensus, the premise from which the United States and China have proceeded. Peter Lee explains at Asia Times Online.

As United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates this week met in Seoul with their Republic of Korea (ROK) counterparts . . . the Cheonan sinking in March, the defining crisis that was supposed to highlight . . . their relationship, instead cast an ugly shadow over the event. The United States failed to organize a vigorous international backlash against North Korea [and] the United Nations Security Council failed to condemn [North Korea]. Joint US-ROK naval exercises, designed to build on UN condemnation with a massive show of united force and resolve, have instead turned into an embarrassing fizzle.

Initial plans for the exercises targeted the Yellow Sea between China and the Korean Peninsula and promised the intimidating presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. The reports aroused a barrage of official criticism and popular anger inside China. In response, the expected location began to drift eastward. … The most recent report is that the US will . . . split the difference . . . with the George Washington and three destroyers in the east and a face-saving smaller exercise in the west.

China, which as recently as two weeks ago looked to be facing an intransigent united front of the US, South Korea and Japan, received an unexpected gift thanks to this American muddling: an alliance showing distinct signs of dismay, demoralization and division.

An alternate scenario courtesy of the author (emphasis added):

If the Barack Obama administration had a modulated policy combining recognition of core Chinese interests and pushback against Chinese opportunism . . . concessions on the . . . US-ROK drills might have been viewed as a welcome sign that [everyone's] mutual interest [was being respected].

However, in the context of an Obama administration foreign policy that appears to frame Asian affairs as a zero-sum game of global norms . . . vs Chinese [parochialism] it is difficult to view the saga of the wandering naval exercise as anything other than a defeat. [Meanwhile] South Korea, which for a time expected to ride the Cheonan crisis to . . recognition as the key US security partner in Asia . . . instead found itself shunted to the side as the two superpowers, China and the United States, once again dispose of the affairs of the Korean Peninsula between them.

South Korea, if you really did accuse North Korea of sinking the Cheonan when you knew that, in truth, it ran aground, freed itself, and collided with another ship . . . well, how’s that working out for you?