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[Viewpoint] Tough diplomacy or regime change?

With massive military drills and explosive rhetoric, the real aftermath of the Cheonan incident has only just begun.

July 30,2010
Was it just aimed at North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan? Doubtful. I sensed something else as I watched the four-day South Korea-U.S. joint naval exercises dubbed “Invincible Spirit” - which ended on Wednesday - and the new financial sanctions on North Korea. I couldn’t help thinking of OPLAN 5030.

In July 2003, U.S. News and World Report revealed the outline of an operations plan for regime change in North Korea. OPLAN 5030 reportedly included three objectives.

The first was to carry out unexpected military drills for several weeks to drive North Korean residents into bunkers until they ran out of food and resources. The second was to deploy advanced RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft near North Korean airspace to induce a response from the North Korean air force and drive them to deplete their fuel. The third was to destroy the funding network of Kim Jong-il.

The moves of the United States in the last few weeks have followed that operations plan. The strength of the joint naval drill exceeded the exercises that the United States carried out at the time of the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident in 1976.

This week’s exercise was a comprehensive one, including every maneuver possible at sea, while reconnaissance flights over the Korean Peninsula by the RC-135s stationed in Okinawa have been taking place since May. It was an unprecedented event.

A more serious sign is the number of drills. South Korea and the United States plan to hold joint drills every month from now on. North Korea is not a regime that stands by with its arms folded when its neighbors hold a military drill. It is a military-oriented nation that feeds off external threats. Pyongyang has to at least pretend to amp up its war readiness, with blackouts, shelter exercises or military drills of its own.

The Team Spirit exercises are the proof. From 1976 to 1993, with the exception of 1992, Korea and the United States held annual military exercises, including aircraft carriers. With as many as 200,000 troops participating, they were the largest military drills in the Western world.

However, Pyongyang considered Team Spirit a real threat, taking it as practice for a nuclear war and an act of aggression by the United States. In fact, Pyongyang responded hysterically. The first Team Spirit drill was the direct cause of the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident.

In 1984, Kim Il Sung confessed to Erich Honecker - general secretary of Germany’s Central Committee of the Socialist Unit Party - the pain the exercises caused. “Whenever the enemies have a TS drill, we have to mobilize the workers and make a military response. So we are struggling with a lack of labor for one-and-a-half months every year,” Kim reportedly said.

Pyongyang wasted a tremendous amount of money organizing exercises in response to the Team Spirit drills. The argument that the drills even helped ruin North Korea is certainly convincing, similar to how the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative consumed the energy of the Soviet Union.

New financial sanctions against North Korea are about to be implemented. Now, both hard and soft power are being used to pressure Pyongyang. The parallel moves are what Pyongyang calls “tiered sanctions.” The target of the financial sanctions is the North Korean leadership.

In an ideal world, trade sanctions put civilian welfare in jeopardy while financial sanctions pressure leaders. This time, the method has evolved. All the United States has to do is select a target and notify financial institutions in a third country to have them freeze the funds. The United States no longer needs to name a specific bank, as it did in 2005 during the Banco Delta Asia incident, to prevent resistance and potential withdrawals.

Under the new “stealth” system, foreign financial institutions are likely to cooperate more positively. A government official explained, “The financial sanctions by the United States are like pouring water down an anthole. You either come out of the hole or get drowned in it.”

It is ironic that the Obama administration, which campaigned against the foreign policy of the Bush administration, is following an operational plan drafted by neoconservatives. Bush’s rhetoric was, “We will not reward wrongdoing,” but today it has changed to, “We will make you realize what you did wrong.”

The officials who learned lessons from dealing with North Korea during the Clinton administration are occupying key White House positions now. How far is Washington willing to go? Will it stop at “gunboat diplomacy” to induce the denuclearization of North Korea, or will it then push for regime change? At present, it is hard to discern Washington’s exit strategy. But if we don’t want to be played once again by North Korea’s hard-line provocations or appeasement tactics, we’d better have our own realistic exit strategy. The real aftermath of the Cheonan incident is about to begin.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is editor of foreign and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Oh Young-hwan



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