Remember the Cheonan!

When the US battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor in 1898, “Remember the Maine!” became a rallying cry that led to the Spanish-American war, even though it is far from clear that Spain had anything to do with the incident. Forensic evidence is much clearer in the sinking last month of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, with North Korea almost surely at fault. [Note added: I, too, jumped to conclusions too quickly. See my June 5 and June 7 and June 29 posts for details.] If South Korea or the US retaliates, the North has threatened that full scale war could result. As horrible as a second round of the Korean war would be, what choice do we have but to stand strong and hope that the North is bluffing? Plenty, it turns out.

Whenever I read accounts with clear cut good guys and bad guys, I try to delve more deeply. Sometimes confrontations are one sided, but most of the time there is another side to the story that doesn’t fit with conventional wisdom. In the sinking of the Cheonan, former CNN correspondent on North Korea, Mike Chinoy writes: “lost in the often breathless media coverage is a critical fact — the attack did not occur in a vacuum. Indeed, in crucial ways, it is the entirely predictable outcome of an abrupt shift in North-South relations — produced not by the actions of Kim Jong Il, but by the policies of President Lee Myung-bak’s administration in Seoul.”

To learn why Chinoy sees South Korea bearing at least part of the blame, read his fascinating article.

Our nation’s “Remember the Maine!” mentality would be of less concern were it not for the fact that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons that are, to a large extent, the result of similar diplomatic blunders. That perspective comes from Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, now at Stanford University. He has visited North Korea six times in recent years to deal with the threat posed by its nuclear weapons program, so he brings a first-hand as well as an expert perspective.

In a recent paper, Hecker argues that back in the 1990’s, as Russia and China, the North’s two main benefactors, cozied up to the West, “Kim Il-sung made the strategic decision to engage the United States and even accept U.S. military presence in the South as a hedge against potentially hostile Chinese or Russian influence.”

This resulted in the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which North Korea shut down its plutonium production and took other steps that effectively ended its nuclear weapons program. But, Hecker continues, “the Agreed Framework was opposed immediately by many in Congress who believed that it rewarded bad behavior. Congress failed to appropriate funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the United States to fall behind in its commitments almost from the beginning.”

In 2002, President Bush included North Korea in his “axis of evil,” torpedoing what was left of the Agreed Framework. North Korea restarted plutonium production and four years later tested its first atomic weapon. Hecker’s paper has other eye-popping revelations and is highly recommended.

So let us “Remember the Maine!” by remembering how war fever then led to unnecessary hostilities, and by not repeating that mistake with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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7 Responses to Remember the Cheonan!

  1. Danny Colligan says:

    You are prudent to be skeptical of such good guys vs bad guys characterizations when sinking of ships are concerned. I haven’t taken a hard look at the recent event so I can’t comment on it. But given our own country’s experience with maritime disasters and propaganda efforts is sufficient to give us pause about jumping to conclusions about these events. You mention the USS Maine disaster, to which I might add the completely fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident and the sinking of the RMS Lusitania (which was portrayed as a military attack on a civilian craft even when the ship was smuggling arms).

    Speaking of war and propaganda, the case of the Korean War is much more complicated than it appears in most US history textbooks. See the good treatment in William Blum’s “Killing Hope” (chapter 5).

  2. Jon says:

    I think it is interesting to look at the NLL and decide for yourself if it was designed to be fair and non-confrontational.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Limit_Line

  3. Marc Stone says:

    You should be teaching at Berkley with hippy talk like that. And for the record, I have a doctorate from a school a little south of you, Santa Clara. Oh, and I’m not a Republican ,but an exceedingly rare, hawkish Democrat.

    I am mostly concerned with the undercurrent message of your article (the research is excellent). That being, we shouldn’t mess with North Korea because they have a few Hiroshima class (an that is being very generous) nuclear weapons.

    For starters, it sets a dangerous precedent. It vindicates the actions of Iran and other aspiring nuclear states that hate America. It says “if you build it, we wont come”. And, that is exceedingly dangerous.

    Second, this is not a MAD standoff with the Soviet Union. If the the north had a bunch of thermonuclear weapons with competent delivery systems “yes” I would be worried. But, if conflict does occur, I doubt North Korea would get off more than 1 detonation before our air force destroyed all their nuclear facilities. I highly doubt the North Koreans would lead with a nuclear strike. It would most likely be a last ditch retributive strike. That being said, yes, even a Hiroshima class detonation would be devastating. But, it would be on the same level of devastating as the North unleashing its artillery barrage on Soul and the expected loss of life when 1 million NK troups and 600 thousand SK troups clash. Not to mention our initial 28k troops. This war will be devastating to both sides, with or without nukes.

    Third, North Korea is a boil that has been in need of lancing for decades. Its citizens toil in unspeakably horrific conditions. If for nothing else, despite the huge loss of life, humanitarian concerns are involved.

    Fourth, China has been using North Korea as a shield from its “less than civil” treatment of its citizens for decades. If we got rid of NK, the spot light of international opinion would shine far more brightly on Chinese activities. Which I think is a good thing.

    OK, I have run out of numbers. But, I find it interesting that in previous generations, the sinking of a ship (ambiguous or not) was almost a sure fire trigger for war. In this pusillanimous age, sinking of a major war ship is “precarious” an “escalation”. Something that should be responded to “diplomatically”. Not “outrage!” “this means war”.

  4. Mikol Jee says:

    Second, this is not a MAD standoff with the Soviet Union. If the the north had a bunch of thermonuclear weapons with competent delivery systems “yes” I would be worried. But, if conflict does occur, I doubt North Korea would get off more than 1 detonation before our air force destroyed all their nuclear facilities. I highly doubt the North Koreans would lead with a nuclear strike. It would most likely be a last ditch retributive strike. That being said, yes, even a Hiroshima class detonation would be devastating. But, it would be on the same level of devastating as the North unleashing its artillery barrage on Soul and the expected loss of life when 1 million NK troups and 600 thousand SK troups clash. Not to mention our initial 28k troops. This war will be devastating to both sides, with or without nukes.
    +1

  5. Jon says:

    I find it encouraging that the tragic and wrongful deaths of 46 sailors is not a “sure fire trigger” for the deaths of millions.

  6. chuck piercey says:

    I have several personal friends in South Korea from doing business there. What I hear from them is that the local view of this whole thing is that it is a cover up for a Korean Navy navigational error that caused the boat to run aground… .

  7. Janman says:

    If only the world has the ability to tell off United States of America that the world is tired of America of being a big bully around.

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