Moscow Seeks Room to Maneuver as Crisis on the Korean Peninsula Intensifies

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 118

ROKS Cheonan

The sinking of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) Corvette, Cheonan, on March 26, has proven to be a slow-building crisis, but one fraught with grave risks of conflict on the Korean peninsula. Moscow’s response has revealed much about the limits affecting Russian policy in the Far East. In the immediate aftermath of the sinking, the Russian media simply reported the event. Trud noted the sinking and loss of life in the Yellow Sea on March 29, and explained the disaster as a result of the ship hitting a “floating mine” (Trud, March 29). Two days later, Aleksandr Khramchikhin devoted a longer piece to the event and speculated on possible causes of the disaster. He provided significant details on the ROK corvette, the damage inflicted upon it, and the loss of life. He put the event in the context of the frequent skirmishes that North and South Korean warships have at sea. Khramchikhin focused on the fact that the sinking involved a surface warship and noted how infrequent the sinking of such ships has been since the Falklands War in 1982. Given the tensions existing between the two Koreas, Khramchikhin said that the question of who sank the vessel would have serious international ramifications. He cited two possibilities, a naval mine or a submarine-launched torpedo. Evaluating the forces available to both sides and the slow response from the North to the event, Khramchikhin concluded that the likely cause was a drifting mine since that would explain the slow response. He stated, however, that whether a mine or torpedo was involved, Pyongyang was responsible for the sinking and this reflected North Korean desperation and the perception that it did not face any risk of immediate military retribution from Seoul or Washington (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 31).

Russian press reports followed the investigation of the sinking by South Korean and international experts even as Russian government spokesmen called for calm and stability. On May 11, Russian media reported the discovery among wreckage of the corvette of the explosive material, RDX, which is used in torpedoes. The report cited the comments of the ROK Defense Minister, Army-General Kim Tae-Young, without further commentary (Izvestiya, May 11). Ten days later, Ivan Antonov reported in Izvestiya on the conclusions drawn by the ROK and foreign experts (US, Australian, British and Swedish) constituting the commission tasked with investigating the sinking. These experts specifically identified the remains of a North Korean torpedo found in the wreckage of the corvette as the source of the detonation. He noted that the recovered parts had North Korean markings (Izvestiya, May 21).

After that announcement, tension began to rise between North and South Korea. The Russia media speculated on the possibility of war on the peninsula. On May 28, local press in Vladivostok reported that Russian diplomats were worried about possible military hostilities. The press report noted previous incidents between North and South Korean warships in November of 2009 and January 2010 and that South Korean warships had located and tracked four North Korean submarines in the Sea of Japan. The report took issue with the conclusions drawn by the commission investigating the sinking of the Cheonan and cited Russian experts who doubted that North Korean submarines where capable of conducting such an attack in the shallow waters near Baengneong Island. None of these sources were Russian naval experts. The report, citing sources with the Russian Pacific Fleet, did state that the increased tensions in the area would not alter the defense ministry plans to conduct, in late June and early July, the naval portion of Vostok 2010, involving vessels from the Pacific, Black Sea, and Baltic Fleets (Vladivostok, May 28).

On the same day, Novaya Gazeta published an article on the prospects for war, but gave it a different twist by asking two different experts to comment on the situation. In the first part, Pavel Felgenhauer, its defense correspondent, focused on who was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan and pointed at the regime in Pyongyang. Reviewing the evidence, he found no other explanation for the event and dismissed any speculation about other causes. His conclusion was that North Korea with its own internal crisis was not likely to accept responsibility, but would respond by further heightening tensions (another nuclear test or missile firing) on the assumption that neither Seoul nor Washington wanted a military confrontation. In the second part of the article, Konstantin Asmolov, a senior researcher at the Center of Korean Studies in the Institute of the Far East, addressed the political ramifications of assigning responsibility for the sinking. Citing reports in leftist publications in Japan and South Korea, Asmolov gave credence to the idea that a US submarine had intentionally, or by accident, sunk the Cheonan, and then stated that there were forces seeking to turn the crisis into a war scare for their own ends. Asmolov concluded that the risk of war was about 30 percent, but that cool heads could prevail. However, he warned that the passion ignited on both sides could lead to more incidents that would be difficult to control. He even spoke of the prospect of war being ignited from below by mass demonstrations that spiral out of control. He concluded that the major powers should work to reduce tensions and restore stability (Novaya Gazeta, May 31).

Asmolov’s warnings about pressure for war from below proved prophetic, but not where he looked. On June 4, RIA Novosti reported that there were demonstrations outside the US Consulate in Vladivostok on Thursday and then follow-on demonstrations on Friday at the South Korean Consulate. The protestors on both occasions blamed the US and South Korea for escalating the crisis. On June 4, the protestors tore up posters of South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, and called him a US puppet, echoing the line taken by Pyongyang (RIA Novosti, June 4).

On June 1, Krasnaya Zvezda published an article on “The Corvette of Discord,” and reported that four Russian naval experts had arrived in Seoul at the invitation of the ROK government to inspect the materials from the wreckage which had led the investigating commission to conclude that the ship was attacked by a North Korean submarine. The naval officers, including an expert in mine and torpedo warfare, also examined the wreckage of the corvette. The author stated that the defense ministry expected a report from the experts on June 7 (Krasnaya Zvezda, June 1). No official report was forthcoming. Instead, there were rumors about the content of the report in the press. These leaks cast doubt upon North Korean responsibility, but offered no other explanation for the sinking. On June 8, Interfax reported that the Russian experts had not found “irrefutable evidence proving North Korea’s involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan, while providing no alternative explanation (Interfax, June 8). On the same day, without any mention of the findings by Russian experts, Pravda repeated North Korean allegations that the sinking was just a “fabrication” engineered by Seoul and Washington and stated that any other conclusion was impossible: “If the US and its satellites continue to avoid an objective explanation of the true circumstances of the incident of the sinking of the corvette and insist on considering only their one-sided ‘results of the investigation’ that will make all the more evident their malicious intent” (Pravda, June 8).

While some Russian reporting expressed sympathy for North Korea, others did not. Khramchikhin wrote another lengthy article accepting the conclusions drawn by the investigating commission on North Korea’s culpability. He concluded that no war would result, because North Korea, a regime in extreme isolation facing economic collapse and political instability was doing what it did in every crisis: mounting a provocation as its only way to secure engagement from the international community on its terms. These bluffs have escalated as the situation in the North has grown more desperate. He described Pyongyang’s entire policy as “blackmail as a cry for help.” Since neither Seoul nor Washington wants war, the crisis would be resolved without conflict but for the fact that Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo all confirmed by their response to the crisis that Pyongyang’s blackmail had worked, and therefore had left the North with the impression that it was free to persist in its “micro-aggressions” without punishment. Washington currently preoccupied by its other regional conflicts certainly does not want war on the Korean peninsula (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, June 9).

Two days later, Anna Arutunyan described the North Korean regime as “the Sopranos,” a crime family and criminal enterprise caught up in tough times, a succession crisis, and striking out at the rest of the world. Reviewing official pronouncements and press coverage of the “corvette crisis,” the author pointed to the succession struggle in North Korea as driving its current policy and noted that Russia, with a weak hand in North Korea was trying to fit its policy to China, which has the most leverage in Pyongyang (The Moscow News, June 11). Throughout that week, Russian diplomacy had actively engaged North Korea, South Korea, and China in an attempt to defuse the situation without putting blame on either side. On June 9, the Russian defense ministry reported that it would release the expert report in July, allowing more time for its attempt to defuse the crisis, but without any sign from either Beijing or Pyongyang that a solution could be found (RIA Novosti, June 9). All these reports have one clear subtext, Moscow does not possess the international prestige or influence to act as a player in this crisis. At best, it wants to avoid having to choose between North and South Korea. At worst, it fears more incidents of “micro aggression” and blackmail until the situation explodes and Russia has to face a war in the wrong place with grave risks of escalation.