The (new) North Korean Crisis: what can be expected and what should be done as a response to the sinking of the Cheonan corvette

25. May 2010

by Mikael Weissmann and Linus Hagström, The Swedish Institute of International Affairs

A report presented last week by an international group of investigators found evidence that it was a North Korean torpedo that sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March 2010.[1] In this attack 46 South Korean sailors died, making it one of the most lethal North Korean provocations since the end of the Korean War 1953.[2] The group’s finding has brought great dismay in South Korea, and sharp condemnation by the international community has followed. 

There have been demands from around the world that North Korea must be “forcefully” tackled after its latest provocation. From the international media coverage one gets the impression that North Korea could start a full scale war in the event that the country was to be punished with more sanctions. The tone of the rhetoric is turned up, and for the untrained ear it sounds as if a war could be imminent. 

Although North Korean statements often sound extremely belligerent, it is important to take note of their strictly defensive character.[3] A declaration by the North Korean Defence Commission clarifies that Pyongyang will react to “punishment,” “retaliation” and “sanctions” with “various forms of tough measures including an all-out war.”[4]  

However, it is reasonable to assume that it is only a military act of revenge that could trigger a war. For one, Pyongyang hardly pursues an armed conflict. Although the North Korean military is numerically strong its equipment is hopelessly outdated.[5] Even if North Korea would be able to cause great damage to the nearby Seoul in the short term, in the longer term a war against South Korea and the United States would be nothing but a North Korean suicide attempt.  

It is equally difficult to see that North Korea would gain any foreign- or security policy benefits from the sinking of the South Korean warship. If the sinking was not purely accidental, the reasons behind it should rather be sought in North Korea’s domestic situation.

Since Kim Jong-il’s health status is uncertain after his alleged stroke and cancer, the succession issue has been a topic of various speculations for nearly two years. Everything seems to indicate that it is Kim’s youngest, relatively unknown, son who has been appointed successor. The sinking of the Korean corvette could be a military faction’s way of trying to position itself as a force behind the mere 26-year-old.

It could also be Kim Jong-il’s way of trying to ensure the military’s continued support even after his possible demise. Considering the country’s extremely precarious financial situation-where even isolated popular protests occurred after a failed currency reform this past winter-the sinking also gives the regime an opportunity to unite the country behind the idea of a common external threat.


What can and should be done?

This leads to the question how the international community should react to, and deal with, the most recent crisis. First of all, we believe that “forceful” countermeasures should be avoided at all cost, despite the fact that it might seem like the most sensible response. Fortunately, the South Korean reaction thus far has been level-headed. President Lee Myung Bak stressed very early that military retaliation is not an option, and up until now the country has only implemented a trade blockade. 

That tough policies towards North Korea can prove counter-productive is the definite lesson of past crises. Washington’s intransigent rhetoric and unwillingness to make any concessions in the first half of George W. Bush’s presidency 2001-2005 did in fact facilitate the North Korean development of a nuclear capability. 

In our view, regional peace and security would benefit most from an early re-start of the Six-Party Talks. Since their initiation in 2003 the talks have functioned as a buffer between crisis and war, and their mere existence can help us uphold the hope of a more peaceful Korean Peninsula in the future.[6]  

It is also important to stress the Six-Party Talks’ relevance beyond the (somewhat irregular) formal meetings of the six parties in Beijing. The actual process of organizing the talks is important in itself, because it serves as a rare dialogue between North Korea and the outside world. The existence of a dialogue serves as an alternative to military actions and provocations both from and against North Korea. It also offers a way to handle the provocations that nonetheless are made. In short, any kind of dialogue is better than the absence of one. 

While waiting for the resumption of official negotiations, it is important to maintain the hope for peace. The outside world has to deal cautiously with North Korea, even if it might prefer a harsher treatment. It is absolutely crucial not to humiliate Pyongyang. A solution can only be viable in the longer term if it ensures a face-saving exit for North Korea. The face-saving aspect applies with regard to both the negotiation process, and any agreement that might reached. The implementation of hard-line policies towards Pyongyang, in contrast, could impede North Korea’s reintegration into the international community.

Future negotiations must be as comprehensive as possible. They can not only focus on how to resolve the Cheonan crisis, or for that matter the nuclear issue. They must also address Pyongyang’s sense of insecurity, because in the absence of credible U.S. security guarantees Pyongyang will never abandon its nuclear capability. Nor would it be rational for North Korea to do so. It is also important in help secure the North Korean economic development, because the country might otherwise risk falling apart with tremendous human consequences. Paradoxically, it is rather positive if the sanctions regime is not perfectly implemented. The extensive illicit trade across the Sino-North Korean border has in fact helped prevent an economic collapse in North Korea. It has also proven to be an agent for social change.

Many Nordic institutions and organizations have a history of collaborations and exchanges with North Korea. These should not be interrupted as a result of the recent developments, but rather be intensified. Such activities are important, even if concrete results are not always visible. Through interaction with the outside world the North Korean élite can learn to understand and to communicate with the outside world. With increased understanding follows reduced distrust and fear of the otherwise unknown.[7] 

These processes are also inherent in different forms of functional cooperation, including aid, NGO work in North Korea, and the implementation of agreements such as the KEDO protocol. This kind of cooperation gives the North Koreans the skills that will be required when the country is to be rebuilt and reintegrated with the international community in the future.


Mikael Weissmann is a Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Before joining the Swedish Institute he was a researcher at NIAS. He holds a PhD in Peace and Development Research.  

Web: http://www


Linus Hagström is a Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Associate Professor of Political Science and Research Fellow at the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities.



[1] The report can be downloaded from (last accessed 25 May 2010).

[2] In January 1968 the presidential palace in Seoul was stormed, killing 71 people, and in November 1987 as South Korean airliner was bombed with 115 killed. However, these incidences did not have the same clear cut military characteristics and casualties.

[3] Linus Hagström and Christian Turesson, ‘Among Threats and a ‘Perfect Excuse’: Understanding Change in Japanese Foreign Security Policy’, Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, 21/3 (2009) at 304.

[4] Korea News Service (KNC) 20 May 2010, “National Defence Commission Issues Statement”, (last accessed 25 May 2010).

[5] Hagström and Turesson, ‘Among Threats and a ‘Perfect Excuse’: Understanding Change in Japanese Foreign Security Policy’,  (at 301-02.

[6] Mikael Weissmann, Understanding the East Asian Peace : Informal and Formal Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding in the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea 1990-2008 (Gothenburg: Peace and Development Research, School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, 2009) at 166-69.

[7] For an in-depth discussion of the role and importance of elite interactions see Ibid.  at 176-81.