So now it's official: North Korea did it. In the early morning hours of March 26 an explosion tore through the hull of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, which was sailing in waters not far from the disputed maritime boundary with the North. The 1,200-ton patrol boat split in two and sank, and 46 sailors lost their lives.
The cause of the disaster wasn't immediately obvious. No one claimed responsibility for an attack, and some sort of accident was, of course, within the realm of possibility. So the South Korean government launched a probe to figure out what happened. On Thursday, after six weeks of work, the investigators presented their findings. The evidence included fragments, recovered from the sea bottom near the sinking, of a Chinese-made torpedo of a kind known to be in use by the North Korean Navy.
So what happens next? Media commentators assure us that -- as is usually the case in matters North Korean -- all the options facing South Korean President Lee Myung Bak are bad ones. Yet this commonplace may need a bit of correcting. President Lee's range of possible moves may be relatively limited, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the ones he chooses will be ineffective. On Friday, Lee ordered his government to prepare "resolute and systematic" countermeasures against North Korea, and announced that he would be announcing further moves in a speech next week. And though he may not go so far as to say it outright, his plan is likely to revolve around doing away with the remnants of the "Sunshine Policy," the South's decade-long program of rapprochement with the North. Bruce Bennett, a Korea-watcher at the Rand Corporation, notes: "When somebody's committing acts of war against you there isn't any sunshine."
The Sunshine Policy was the brainchild of Kim Dae Jung, the dissident-turned-national leader who came to power in Seoul in 1998. Kim assumed that North Korea's decades of bad behavior could be modified, and the way to do that was by lessening tensions and comprehensively promoting personal and economic contacts between the two countries. The two governments dismantled the propaganda loudspeakers on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, brought together families that had been separated by the Korean War, and organized several grand investment projects on the northern side of the line. (For some reason no one ever assumed that Kim Jong Il might be able to dig up the cash for investments in the South.) One of those projects was the Hyundai-funded tourism resort at Mount Kumgang, just to the north of the DMZ. Another was the Kaesong Industrial Park, where as of last year some 40,000 North Koreans were earning wages in factories run by several dozen South Korean companies.
For a while it seemed to be working: The North toned down its belligerent rhetoric (well, at least a bit), and inter-Korean contacts, once unthinkable, became the order of the day. South Koreans told pollsters that they welcomed the change in atmosphere. (No one ever managed to ask Northerners what they thought). Yet the inflow of South Korean capital and know-how never seemed quite enough to satisfy Pyongyang, and the broader benefits of more relaxed relations never materialized. The North, for all the warming, went on launching missiles and expanding its nuclear programs.
President Lee came to office in 2008 promising to end the unconditional largesse, and, to no one's real surprise, the North immediately made its disapproval felt, threatening Kaesong investors and refusing to punish a North Korean soldier who shot a southern tourist in cold blood at the Kumgang resort. One theory has it that the sinking of the Cheonan might be the North's retaliation for a naval skirmish that took place last fall, when the Southerners got into a gunfight with a Northern vessel that violated the maritime border between the two countries. At least two North Korean sailors are said to have died. But there may be more to all of this than meets the eye. Ever since the North Korean leadership badly botched a would-be "currency reform" last fall, triggering the first public protests in recent memory, the regime has looked even wobblier than usual. Add to that Kim Jong Il's health problems (he apparently suffered a stroke in 2008 and looked shockingly worse for wear during a recent visit to China) and his correspondingly urgent efforts to ensure the succession of his son Kim Jong-un as North Korea's next leader, and you have a powerful recipe for instability.