Too big to brush off

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 May, 2010, 12:00am

The show-and-tell at South Korea's defence ministry about the North Korean attack on the corvette Cheonan would seem to have said it all, in consummate detail. The believers - those who were sure from the outset that it was '99 per cent certain' that a North Korean torpedo had sunk the Cheonan in March, killing 46 sailors - are sure the team of international investigators has done enough to convince even the most extreme doubters.

How can you argue with the sight of one ugly, rusted, blackened torpedo, its motor, shaft and propeller all there, encased in glass, for the world to see? And how can you argue with all the other evidence, the design of the torpedo, the intelligence on the 'midget' North Korean submarine that fired it, the North Korean writing inside the propeller?

Actually, it's quite easy for all sides in the argument to twist the evidence to prove whatever they want. On Korean websites, in coffee shop gossip, the sceptics are still saying the Korean defence ministry made it all up. They're accusing the investigators of forging the Korean script for 'No1' on the propeller. They say the hulk of the torpedo was pulled up ages ago, maybe even before the attack.

Those are the extremists. Then there are the in-between ones - who say we don't quite know everything; there are still questions. How can we be sure, they ask, if the North Korean manufacturer or the South's investigators put the number there? They insist we still need to wait for 'all the facts'. Incredibly, that's the category into which the Chinese government seems to be falling. How else to judge the comment of a Chinese official that the episode was 'unfortunate', and the call of a Chinese spokesman for 'calm on all sides'.

The nature of these remarks can only convey one meaning: the Chinese are decidedly lukewarm on the results of the investigation. They don't want to be identified with the team of people from 10 South Korean agencies and four foreign countries - the United States, Britain, Australia and Sweden - who came up with the facts. They see North Korea as their de facto protectorate, dependent on Chinese largesse for food, military materiel, investment and financing - whatever it takes to keep the failed North Korean state on life support. Like a parent dealing with a close friend or relative who's a criminal, an addict and a wastrel bully boy, China still feels an almost instinctive compulsion to respond whenever the North comes begging, cap in hand.

In the latest begging expedition to Beijing, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il got a hug from President Hu Jintao and a ritualistic urging to return to six-party talks on his beloved nuclear weapons programme. In the end, the 'Dear Leader' can be sure that China remains on his side - reluctantly perhaps. China's priority remains stability on the Korean Peninsula.

When it comes to Korea, nothing horrifies Chinese leaders more than the spectre of a collapse of the North Korean regime, an event that would send tens of thousands of Koreans pouring across the Yalu and Tumen river borders into China and possibly force the Chinese into a military role. China, with its enormous trade with the US, is not going to risk a repetition of the Korean war, but it's possible to imagine a range of other scenarios that are deeply troubling.

At this stage, the Chinese are officially not even acknowledging the results of the investigation. They are hoping the Cheonan incident will disappear into the miasma of history, as have other bloody episodes since the Korean war armistice was signed in 1953. There's something to be said for the Chinese position. Winston Churchill's remark that it's better to 'jaw-jaw than war-war' always comes to mind when considering some of the alternatives.

The sinking of the Cheonan, though, carries worse implications. It is frightening to think that North Korea could stage an attack like that and actually get away with it, unpunished beyond rhetorical outbursts and appeals to the United Nations to 'do something' - condemnation, sanctions, anything.

And, yet, who believes the South's forces should attack the North's submarine bases? What if North Korea then fired its missiles and artillery pieces above the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas? Understandably, South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, a one-time leader of the Hyundai empire, prefers to appeal for international diplomatic sympathy rather than breathe a word about reprisals. He no doubt has the support of the US and others, but China's role is critical if not pivotal.

Hu undoubtedly said nothing about the Cheonan incident in his conversations with Kim. But at some point - if they really want to guarantee the stability of the Korean Peninsula and all that trade with the US and others - the Chinese will need to play a much stronger role. What they do and say at the UN and other forums is likely to determine the future of inter-Korean relations.

China's yearning for non-controversial compromising in the interests of stability may only postpone an inevitable showdown - after the next bloody episode, or the next, or the one after that. Unless China acts decisively, it is hard to imagine a happy ending to the cycle.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals