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Condemn but Converse: A Japan-U.S.-R.O.K. Response to North Korea

Izumi Hajime, professor of East Asian International Politics, University of Shizuoka


Three months have passed since the sinking of a Republic of Korea (ROK) naval ship on March 26, and the matter is still under discussion in the United Nations Security Council. South Korea and its allies the United States and Japan, which have announced their full support of Seoul, claim the ship was torpedoed by North Korea and request the international body to send Pyongyang a clear “message from international community” that such an act must never happen again.

Reviewing the sequence of events thus far, however, the possibility that any sort of resolution or presidential statement might be passed seems highly unlikely. China and Russia, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, take the position that clear evidence has not been established that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship. Neither country, therefore, is willing to directly condemn North Korea. Even if steps are taken to indirectly put pressure on the North, China and Russia will continue to oppose censure in the form of a Security Council document.

The only kind of message from international community that China and Russia might go along with would likely be limited to the following three points: (1) declaring the sinking of the South Korean warship and loss of the lives of 46 seaman to be an extremely unfortunate incident; (2) expressing concern about the intensification of tensions between the North and South as a result of the sinking; and (3) urging that peace and stability be maintained on the Korean Peninsula.

Any statement of such limited content, however, would hardly satisfy South Korea and the United States, and a strong reaction in these two countries to failure to deliver a potent message to North Korea is probably unavoidable. Under pressure from within, there is every possibility that the United States and/or South Korea might take firm steps against the North on their own. Seoul may resume the propaganda broadcasts aimed at the North Korean military that it had halted in 2004. The United States may tighten the financial sanctions already in place against Pyongyang and consider reviving its designation as a “terrorism-supporting state.”

Implementation of such measures would doubtless provoke a hard-line reaction from North Korea. Vis-a-vis Seoul, the North has already threatened to open bombardment on the reinstalled propaganda broadcasting equipment at the demilitarized zone. Should it make good on its threats, South Korea would most certainly return the fire, prompting the outbreak of military confrontation on the peninsula. Revenge against the United States, on the pretext of defending itself against the threat of nuclear attack by the United States, might take the form of conducting a third nuclear arms test and hinting of its plans-a matter of serious concern in Washington?to transfer nuclear technology or nuclear materials to third parties. Such actions would intensify military tensions on the Korean peninsula that might set off a global-scale nuclear proliferation crisis.

Every possible effort must be made to avoid a crisis. Japan, the U.S., and South Korea must firmly condemn North Korea for its provocative acts; the United States and South Korea will need to strengthen defenses against the possibility of armed attack from the North. But Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington must at the same time pursue every avenue toward substantive dialogue with the Pyongyang regime. It is not a matter of rewarding villainy; successful dialogue is one of the most important ways to ensure our own security.

(Originally published in Japanese in the Asahi Shimbun, Jun 23, 2010)