N.Korea’s reinvestigation proposal alters Cheonan situation

Posted on : 2010-05-21 12:06 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Analysts say the proposal is a double-edged sword for the S.Korean government
 May 20.
May 20.

In its response to the South Korean government’s announcement Thursday of its finding that the Cheonan sank due to a torpedo attack by a North Korean submersible, North Korea played a card no one saw coming. The country offered a formal counterproposal by its highest organization of authority, the National Defense Commission, to “send a Democratic People’s Republic of Korea National Defense Commission review team to the site in South Choson to verify the evidence.”

Directly, this is an expression of North Korea’s intention to send a fact-finding team to prove that it had nothing to do with the sinking of the Cheonan. But in reality, there is a far deeper and broader strategy at play in the context of inter-Korean relations and the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula.

“It is unprecedented in the history of inter-Korean relations for North Korea to propose sending an investigation team in response to an issue that has been deemed a ‘military provocation by North Korea,’” said Kim Yeon-chul, professor of unification studies at Inje University. “The Cheonan situation has entered a new phase.”

“Regardless of whether the government accepts or rejects North Korea’s proposal, the situation will inevitably unfold in a different manner from what the government had initially planned for the days ahead,” said a former senior figure who worked at the Unification Ministry and the Cheong Wa Dae (the presidential office in South Korea or Blue House).

If the South Korean government does accept North Korea’s proposal, it may signal the beginning of an effective “reinvestigation” of the cause of the Cheonan’s sinking. The government’s announcement Thursday of investigation findings would be downgraded in status to “reference material.” If the government does not accept the proposal, there is a considerable chance that it will find itself in a difficult position in future discussions with the international community, including the UN Security Council. This is due to the possibility of divisions appearing in international opinion as North Korea steps up its counteroffensive by arguing that the South Korean announcement was fabricated, and China and Russia support the North Korean proposal. In this sense, North Korea’s counterproposal to send its own review team is a double-edged sword for the South Korean government.

“The government has found itself in a confining situation,” said Former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun

Also noteworthy is the fact that in addition to North Korea’s formal announcement of an “NDC spokesperson’s statement,” the country also made an informal proposal through an inter-Korean authorities’ channel to send the review team on Friday and Saturday. This indicates the possibility that the proposal may not simply be a political offensive.

“North Korea’s proposal is positive in that it is an attitude of ‘finding the truth based on the facts’ rather than a military response,” said Jang Yong-seok, research director at the Institute for Peace Affairs. “If the government rejects North Korea’s proposal, it could face an irremediable crisis of trust within and outside the country.”

“The government must accept North Korea’s proposal,” said Jang.

“There also appears to be an intention on North Korea’s part of using this review team proposal as part of an attempt at new dialogue between North Korean and South Korean authorities,” said a former high-ranking official. The official added, “It suggests that so long as South Korea does not enact provocative measures, North Korea does not want tensions to heighten due to the Cheonan issue.”

Perhaps because of this complex array of factors, the government has shown a cautious approach to the proposal from North Korea.

“The investigation will begin at the UN Command Military Armistice Commission according to the armistice agreement, and we only need to follow that procedure,” said Park Jung-yi, military head of the joint civilian-military fact-finding team.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]