In The News

The Cheonan Investigation: Interim Results and South Korean Policy Options

May 19, 2010

The Washington Post reports that interim results of a South Korea-led international investigation into the March 26th sinking of the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan near Baek-ryong Island are due to be released by the South Korean government on Thursday morning (Wednesday evening EST). The report, which concludes on the basis of strong circumstantial forensic evidence that a North Korean torpedo sunk the Cheonan, will provide an initial basis upon which the South Korean government will pursue a range of policy responses. These responses can be categorized according to four different tracks: 1) domestic, 2) inter-Korean, 3) the U.S.-ROK alliance, 4) international.

First, South Korea has set up an independent commission tasked to evaluate South Korean defense policies. This commission will recommend actions South Korea can take to redress its vulnerabilities to North Korean unconventional and surprise attacks. The commission will also evaluate the direction of South Korean defense policy in light of the Cheonan incident in a review that will influence the relative priority of peninsular vs. off-peninsula missions, relative balance of South Korea’s force structure, and the procurements necessary to achieve those objectives. If the Cheonan case is handled well, the commission’s recommendations will lead to a stronger, more capable South Korean military.

Second, the Cheonan incident obviously has negative ramifications for the inter-Korean relationship, but there is little appetite in South Korea for a war with the North. Instead, the Lee administration is mobilizing economic pressure where possible in an attempt to squeeze North Korean finances, without providing the North with a pretext for further escalation. This approach has come in for some criticism in South Korea for pushing North Korea further into China’s strategic embrace.

Read the full piece on the Council on Foreign Relations blog Asia Unbound.

Scott Snyder directs The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. He can be reached at ssnyder@asiafound-dc.org.

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