One of East Asia’s ancient civilizations,Korea became a political battleground amongChina, Russia, and Japan during the 19th cen-tury. Korea eventually lost its independence toTokyo, which turned the former into a colony in 1910. Japan’s defeat in 1945 led the UnitedStates and Soviet Union to divide the peninsu-la along the 38th parallel. The DemocraticPeople’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and theRepublic of Korea (ROK) emerged in 1948. TheDPRK’s Kim Il-sung attempted to unify thepeninsula by force two years later. Subsequentintervention by the United States and China ledto military stalemate and an armistice in 1953.
In that year, Washington initiated a “bilat-eral” security treaty, in reality a unilateraldefense guarantee, and established a perma-nent troop presence. The DPRK has remaineda malignant international actor. Over the yearsthe Kim regime initiated a variety of military and terrorist attacks on both South Koreanand American targets. However, since thedowning of an ROK airliner in 1987,Pyongyang has largely eschewed blatant actsof war in favor of diplomatic brinkmanship.The
sinking may represent a worri-some change in strategy. Although U.S. administrations reduced thenumber of troops stationed in South Korea over the years, the basic military commitmentremained unchanged. American and ROKofficials often promised greater South Koreandefense self-reliance, but always in the future—a future that only resulted in additionalpromises.
The United States even retainswartime operational control of the CombinedForces Command, in which the vast majority of forces would be South Korean.The ROK remains dependent on theUnited States today, despite vastly changedcircumstances. Aggressive, hegemonic com-munism is gone. The North cannot count onsupport even from China in war, and SouthKorea is far stronger economically.While continuing to rely on Washingtonfor its own defense, South Korea has begunpreparing its military, particularly the navy,for broader regional and even global contin-gencies. One of its core security objectives now is “enhancing competence and status interna-tionally.”
The ROK has become an active par-ticipant in international peacekeeping mis-sions. As a result, the South has consideredupgrading its current relationship with theUnited States to a “strategic alliance” devotedto international problems.
Back to Defense Basics withthe
And yet, while officials in Seoul have beenplanning to exercise greater global influence,Pyongyang apparently remains willing andable to threaten war. The sinking of the
, a 1,200-ton corvette, on March 26demonstrated that South Korea’s most seri-ous security challenges remain closer to home. After considering the possibilities that the
suffered from an accident or hit a mine, the ROK, in consultation with interna-tional experts, concluded that the cause wasa Chinese-made torpedo fired by a NorthKorean submarine.
Why would the Northsink a South Korean ship now?It could be part of a campaign to redraw the contested boundary in the Yellow Sea.
Itmight be Kim-sanctioned retaliation for a naval clash last November in which a NorthKorean vessel apparently was damaged.
Itcould be an unauthorized military action, car-ried out by either rogue elements within or anincreasingly influential leadership of theDPRK military, intended to prevent resump-tion of negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclearprogram. It might be an attempt by Kim Jong-il to frighten Seoul into renewing economicties and aid reduced by the government of LeeMyung-bak.
It could be intended to demonstrate thatNorth Korea can strike with impunity. It mightbe a reward from Kim for the North Koreanmilitary, allowing embarrassed naval leaders to
The sinking of the
, a1,200-toncorvette, onMarch 26demonstratedthat SouthKorea’s mostserious security challengesremain close tohome.