Page 1 of 2 The Cheonan sinking ... and Korea rising
By Peter Lee
The Cheonan incident has emerged as a potentially major gambit in South
Korean President Lee Myung-bak's efforts to distance his country from China,
establish it as America's full geopolitical partner in North Asia, and
substitute the United Nations Security Council for the six-party talks as the
primary venue for international engagement-cum-confrontation with North Korea.
China, for its part, apparently prefers that the Cheonan incident does
not impede the current movement toward economic integration with South Korea.
As for the United States, it welcomes a manageable security crisis in North
Asia. If the issues are economic, the US is on the outside looking in. But when
North Korea misbehaves, the 7th
Fleet, 29,000 troops in South Korea, and US shuttle diplomacy look like
essentials, not anachronisms.
Even so, the Barack Obama administration is moving cautiously, happy to assert
its indispensability but trying not to upset the Asian applecart.
Meanwhile, North Korea, the alleged perpetrator of the Cheonan outrage,
is almost lost in the shuffle - although its post-Kim Jong-il future is
probably the key factor underlying the calculations of Beijing and Seoul in
their handling of the affair.
Increasingly, North Korea does not represent a threat. Instead, it represents
East Asia's last frontier, an untapped treasure-house of human and mineral
wealth to be exploited by the regional and world powers that are able to guide
its integration into the global economy.
The Cheonan incident remains rather murky. The investigative team claims
evidence of North Korean responsibility is indisputable. However, the bizarre
circumstances of the attack, even when viewed in the context of North Korea's
opaque security doctrine and chaotic command and control structure, provide
ample grist for skeptics.
What is indisputable is the determination of the Lee Myung-bak administration
to exploit the geopolitical opportunity presented by the sinking.
Beyond using the incident as a 9/11-type opportunity for galvanizing public
opinion in favor of his administration and policies in the run-up to local
elections - and unleashing a full-court media and legal effort to rebut,
sideline, intimidate, and even sue critics of the Cheonan investigation
- Lee is using the security crisis to build a consensus favoring its
longstanding desire to confront North Korea and strengthen his nation's
strategic alliance with the US as a counterweight to China's growing economic
One of the first orders of business is, not surprisingly, an arms buildup that
will give South Korea the enhanced ability to retaliate against the North
without reference to US geopolitical qualms.
A major increase in defense spending - a long-held ambition of the current
government - is being justified by, in the words of the Wall Street Journal,
"the lethal effectiveness displayed by North Korea's mini-submarine fleet" in a
brazen exercise of asymmetric warfare that undercut the credibility of the US
The Journal tells us:
"We need to have our own ways to threaten North Korea," said Kim
Tae-woo, a South Korean defense expert who sits on one of two committees Lee
has established to assess Seoul's military preparedness. 
Korea's decrepit fleet of diesel submarines may find new peril in a muscled-up
South Korean military, but China will also find much to chew on.
Lee has explicitly organized his foreign policy around the concept of obtaining
acknowledgement of South Korea as a leading regional power, an alternative to
China as an Asian economic and social model, and a valued American security
partner in North Asia.
South Korea's appeal to the US has been significantly enhanced by the serial
ineptitude of the hapless Japanese government under the Democratic Party of
Japan's (DPJ) Yukio Hatoyama, who resigned on Wednesday.
Committed to establishing Japan as an independent actor in international
diplomacy, Hatoyama's government had antagonized the US by committing to
negotiate the relocation of the US Marine base at Futenma off the island of
Okinawa. In another display of geopolitical waywardness, Japan lurched away
from the US and toward China in late 2009, its shifted emphasis symbolized by a
gigantic, 600 person delegation dispatched to Beijing under the leadership of
the DPJ kingmaker and former secretary general, Ichiro Ozawa, who stepped down
Meanwhile, Lee repositioned South Korea away from the pro-unification/anti-US
policy of his predecessors. He has made his case for South Korea as a key
factor in Washington's security equation and backed off from the decision of
the previous administration to remove forces from US operational control as a
statement of the nation's independent security policy.
The fates of the dueling free trade agreements with China and the United States
illustrate Lee's calculations.
China has been pushing for a free trade agreement in order to further integrate
the South Korean and Chinese economies on the basis of the current $200 billion
annual two-way trade and investment flows.
South Korea, which has protected-agriculture issues similar to those that have
bedeviled trade negotiations with Japan, has determinedly slow-walked
negotiations for years.
The Japan/China/South Korea summit at Jeju, which was examined obsessively by
the media for Chinese statements on the Cheonan incident, was actually
an economic summit which produced a rather empty-looking agreement to form a
commission to study a free trade agreement.
At the same time, Lee has been lobbying the United States aggressively to pass
the "KORUS-FTA" - the Republic of Korea-United States Free Trade Act.
During his visit to Washington in April, the South Korean president touted the
geopolitical advantages of the deal in an interview with the Washington Post's
For us, the FTA is not just simply a trade agreement or an economic
agreement. It really is much more than that. And I think the KORUS-FTA will
also play a very important part of the Obama administration's new Asia policy
Like I said before, the United States is very determined to reengage with the
Asian region, and I fully welcome that. And there is a role that the Americans
must and should play in this region. And I say the KORUS-FTA will have a
positive benefit for the Asian region as a whole because of the China factor.
Because when we look at China, China's influence in the region, both
militarily, economically and otherwise, is growing rapidly, and this is
something that we will all have to take into consideration. And with the
passage and implementation of the KORUS-FTA, the US role in the Asian region
will be much more specifically defined, and I think it will be a very positive
aspect when we take into consideration everything, including the China factor.
The Chinese government would be expected to question the
sincerity of South Korea's negotiating posture based on the following passage
from the same interview:
And also another point I'd like to raise is that we hope that the
KORUS-FTA will be implemented before our FTA with either China or the European
Union. Because this will have a direct impact on whether American consumers and
Americans will be able to create jobs and reap the benefits of the passage of
the FTA. Because, again, the US Chamber of Commerce has released the report
saying that the KORUS-FTA must be passed before Korea passes its agreement with
either China or the EU [European Union] in order to reap the maximum benefits.
America's right-wing commentariat is enthusiastic about KORUS-FTA. The Obama
administration is not.