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An Act of Open Insubordination? Implications of the Cheonan Incident for Domestic Politics in North Korea

By
09 May 2010


The stern of the South Korean ship Cheonan is docked on a barge off Baengnyeong Island near the maritime border with North Korea, norwest of Seoul. (Photo: Lee Jung-Hoon/Yonhap/Reuters)

A few years ago, when tensions were escalating between China and Taiwan, I met a colleague from the Chinese Studies department of my university in the hallway who told me how deeply concerned he was about the risk of an armed conflict. With the ignorance of an outsider, I took this lightly; and indeed nothing happened.

Now we have changed places; thanks to the Cheonan incident, I am worried. If it turns out that the North Koreans attacked the ship, then South Korean President Lee Myung Bak will be caught between a rock and a hard place. If he retaliates, he will risk a chain reaction that could result in a full-fledged war. If he does nothing, it might cost him his political career and invite further provocations.

Much has been written about the proper reaction and South Korea’s options. I will not dwell on this but rather focus on an issue that has been largely ignored. Who did it, and why? Naturally, but wrongly, the West is egocentric enough to interpret North Korea’s actions from the outsider’s perspective. Every step Pyongyang takes is usually seen as a message sent either to Seoul, Beijing, Washington or Tokyo. But as in any other country, and as every structural realist will understand, North Korea is first and foremost concerned with itself. I have stressed this with regard to the nuclear issue, which is at least as much a tool to stabilize the regime in times of domestic difficulties as it is an instrument of foreign policy. Can we interpret the destruction of the Cheonan, if it was caused by North Korea, in a similar way?

Sinking a corvette is very different from shooting a tourist or firing a few pistol shots across the 38th parallel. It is even unlike killing an enemy with an axe in the neutral zone around Panmunjom. It is hard not to regard the deliberate sinking of a warship and the killing of 46 crewmen as an act of war. And it is hard to expect the other side not to share this view.

So who made this fatal and risky decision? Those in the West who insist on calling Kim Jong Il the Dear Leader (although this title has not been in use in North Korea for one and a half decades), who believe that he is the personification of evil and the only person with power in his country, will argue that only he could have given the order. But this assumption collides with a truism that my students learn in their first semester: the top priority of the DPRK leadership is regime survival. An open war against the South would be suicidal.

The “cornered tiger” scenario is the only condition, beyond mental illness, under which Kim Jong Il would choose this option. One possible interpretation of the sinking of the Cheonan is that the situation in North Korea is so bad and the regime so desperate that it believes risking annihilation is its only option. But while it is hard to regard the situation in North Korea as rosy, it has been through worse times. With the currency reforms of 2009, the regime was able to win some time in its otherwise hopeless fight against the inevitable transformation of North Korea’s society when it expropriated the growing wealth from the newly emerging middle class and tried to partially demonetize the economy again. And as far as we know, prior to March 26, there was no intelligence pointing to unusual troop movements; no increase in communications that might have signaled something out of the ordinary was about to happen or signs that a change in the military’s alert status was about to take place.

Of all the possible scenarios for why North Korea would have been involved in the Cheonan incident, the one that should worry us the most is the possibility that it was NOT Kim Jong Il who gave the orders. While in 2008 one could have imagined, under certain circumstances, that a young recruit overreacted and shot a South Korean tourist at Mt. Kumgang, it is much less likely that the captain of a North Korean submarine had a short fuse and sank that corvette. He must have done so upon receiving orders, or at least a “go ahead” from someone above him. The higher up we move in the command chain, the stress motive becomes less likely. A lieutenant commander in his sub might think twice; a rear admiral will think ten times before pulling the trigger.

If the North Koreans torpedoed the ship, and if it was not done after a self-destructive order by Kim Jong Il, this may be proof of a destabilization of the current leadership in Pyongyang. Sinking the Cheonan without consent by the top leader would be an open act of insubordination. An autocratic leader who does not have his lieutenants under control becomes a liability to the system. It is fear and the unchallenged authority of the top that keeps an autocracy together. Many of us have argued that such considerations had allowed Kim Jong Il to take over power from his father so smoothly despite his very different personality: the elite knew that regime stability depended on a strong and undisputed leader, and he was the only realistic candidate for the job.

Yet, years have passed since 1994, and North Korea has changed substantially. A famine, a set of failed economic policies, and Kim’s obvious health issues have created a situation of frustration, insecurity, and nervousness. The Pyongyang elite will be holding their breath and watching closely how Kim Jong Il reacts. What if he does not succeed in creating the impression that sinking the Cheonan was his idea? Even if so, this is a catch-22 since it invites a potentially destructive counter reaction by South Korea and the United States. If it wasn’t done on his command, will Kim Jong Il conduct a major purge of the culprits like his father did in 1956, when a trip to Europe was used to launch a coup against him? If he doesn’t, then the vultures will get more courageous.

However, it is very unlikely that an unfriendly takeover of the top post in Pyongyang would happen quickly, effectively, and peacefully. Chances are much better for the emergence of the chaotic situation that North Korea’s neighbors have tried to avoid for a long time at the economic and political cost of deliberately propping up the Kim Jong Il regime. The potential effects include a humanitarian disaster, a last-ditch effort at a military solution, or the active involvement of superpowers like China.

In short, we have reason to be really worried this time. And we can only hope that all this speculation is overemphasizing negative scenarios, and that a few months from now, everything will be back to business as usual, just as it did when China and Taiwan seemed to be on the brink of war a few years ago.


Recommended citation: Frank, Ruediger, “An Act of Open Insubordination? Implications of the Cheonan Incident for Domestic Politics in North Korea , 38 North, Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, May 9, 2010. Online at: www.38north.org/?p=732.

Reader Feedback

21 Responses to “An Act of Open Insubordination? Implications of the Cheonan Incident for Domestic Politics in North Korea”

  1. [...] See Ruediger Frank, via Blake Hounshell, for speculation on who might have ordered the attack. [...]

  2. charms says:

    One of the many things that struck me as being unusual was the absence of any visible action by North Korea. It is not completely impossible that this was an act of insubordination from a lower ranking soldier, so desperate with the situation in the North that he attacked the Cheonan in the hopes of triggering a renewed Korean War and toppling the regime.

  3. [...] it’s unclear if the torpedo rumored to have sunk the Cheonan was actually launched by the order of Kim Jong Il, [...]

  4. Ron says:

    A strange, far-fetched notion.

    Is it possible that Kim wanted to make it clear in the strongest possible terms his dislike of Lee government in Seoul? And also to demonstrate his Navy’s capabilities? Not to mention his desire to even the series (remember November 2009?) These points require no admission of guilt to make. Yes, the message (or the propaganda value) would have been stronger (higher in the domestic front) had he admitted his guilt. So why didn’t he? The answer is China. You can say Kim is self-destructive only if he admits Cheonan was his. What he may have not thought through though is the forensic evidence that his crew left behind. The only mystery around the event is its timing.

  5. [...] concern has been that Kim Jong-il approved of the strike personally, while some speculate it was an act of insubordination. What could the analysis be if either of these scenarios are the case? If Kim approved of the [...]

  6. zzzz says:

    Beware when investigation is biased and called indisputable . North Korea was denied access to evidence Cheonan wreckage and right to fair hearing. A very biased closed investigation by US and allies reached disputable conclusions . DPRK was not even invited to access the evidence and was denied a fair hearing before its “peers” ….China and Asia.This is as disputable as Iraq’s weapons of Mass destruction .Being polite and respectful to DPRK does not hurt. see this http://alejandrocaodebenos.com/cgi-bin/weblog_basic/index.php?p=195 at DPRK forum.

  7. [...] has moved to the realm of politics and intentions. Ruediger Frank of the University of Vienna has a piece at 38 North speculating that someone high up in the North Korean military hierarchy may have been [...]

  8. [...] someone making a power play in North Korea? Ruediger Frank at 38 North has this to say about the Cheonan [...]

  9. [...] support by declaring a small victory over the richer guys down south. Ruediger Frank at 38 North disagrees, raising the possibility that the attack was not order from the [...]

  10. [...] as Ruediger Frank points out in his blog, 38 North, some of the fundamental questions surrounding the attack have not been asked. Most importantly, [...]

  11. [...] Speculation That Korean Ship Attack Was High-Level Insubordination Against Kim Jong-Il — Ruediger Frank, 38 North [...]

  12. Juicey Brucey says:

    The South Koreans need to take care of the North Korean problem. Do a little thought experiment here: Cuba sinks an American Destroyer just south of Key West in international waters; what would the US do? My guess is that Fidel would end up in a youtube video being hung by Miami exilios after a US led attack.
    South Korea needs to man up and get rid of this (over) half century threat. They should do so now before the North develops a real working deliverable A-bomb that they can drop on Seoul.
    The Chinese are not going to enter into a war on the side of the North and risk losing the US and Europe as customers. A pull out by Walmart alone would sink Chinas’ economy and end up getting the communist party overthrown so that guarantees that Kim Jong Il will not get anything more than moral support.
    This is not 1953. The North Korean army is no match for the South Korean army. This would be a reprise of US vs Iraq II. It would be nice to see Kim Jong Il swaying in the breeze with a hemp necktie on youtube. The South just needs to grow a pair.

  13. JH says:

    “An autocratic leader who does not have his lieutenants under control becomes a liability to the system.”

    I expect China to “take care” of their lieutenant, as he has become an embarrassment to the system.

  14. [...] it’s unclear if the torpedo rumored to have sunk the Cheonan was actually launched by the order of Kim Jong Il, [...]

  15. Ruediger Frank says:

    Dear GWR,

    One of the many things that struck me as being unusual was the absence of any visible action by North Korea. Neither had the country’s troops along the border been put into a heightened state of alarm before the incident; nor has Kim Jong-il afterwards boasted of the lesson he taught the sycophantic traitors down South. I don’t see how this can be a propaganda victory or anything like it if he does not openly and loudly claim responsibility, or, for that matter, his son.

  16. Ruediger Frank says:

    To Dan,

    We should indeed expect signs of a purge later on, if my suspicion is true.

    Concerning the China visit, I believe that this is another piece of evidence that could support my hypothesis. Let us assume that the Cheonan attack was carried out by North Korea, and that it was Kim Jong-il’s responsibility. Wouldn’t China have tried to postpone the long-planned visit to avoid diplomatic complications? I think that the fact that the Chinese have received Kim Jong-il despite the obvious political risk under the given situation shows that they wanted to make a statement. This statement was meant for domestic forces inside of North Korea who might have hoped that they could rely on Chinese support in an attempt at replacing Kim Jong-il. The message sent by Beijing was: (1) Kim Jong-il is a respected statesman (giving him “face”); and (2) Kim Jong-il is our man, so nobody should hope that we will drop him and support any coup against him.

    Finally, I think it is indeed possible that the Cheonan incident was simply an accident, or that it happened as the result of somebody violating the command chain without intending to destabilize the whole system. Instead of a disclaimer, I’d like to point at a short article that I have written here previously: http://www.38north.org/?p=173.

  17. [...] A few years ago, when tensions were escalating between China and Taiwan, I met a colleague from the Chinese Studies department of my university in the hallway who told me how deeply concerned he was about the risk of an armed conflict. With the ignorance of an outsider, I took this lightly; and indeed nothing happened.  Now we have changed places; thanks to the Cheonan incident, I am worried. If it turns out that the North Koreans attacked the ship, then South Korean President Lee Myung Bak will be caught between a rock and a hard place. If he retaliates, he will risk a chain reaction that could result in a full-fledged war. If he does nothing, it might cost him his political career and invite further provocations.  (38 North) http://38north.org/2010/05/an-act-of-open-insubordination-implications-of-the-cheonan-incident-for-d… [...]

  18. JB says:

    Provocative analysis.

    I’d like to suggest a “riff” that extends the analysis to include the November 9th naval clash.

    If you consider the Cheonan sinking in the context of DPNK leadership power dynamics, then the exchange of gunfire between North and South Korean patrol boats on November 9, 2009 should certainally be considered as an important (and prehaps percipitating) event within DPNK power dynamic. It is not hard to image Kim several months ago wrestling with questions of how to respond.

    Kim must have been under enormous preasure to respond. As your analysis states, he certainally would not want to precipitate a regieme ending conflict w/the South. He also could not afford to not respond to the humiliating loss. An ideal response would provide plausible distance from any action and therefore diminsh a kinetic conflict w/S Korea, yet be credibly close enough to his influece so he could claim a possible success.

    It is not hard to imagine Kim approving a policy respone that may have included more aggessive assertion of DPNK claims re: Northern Limit Line. It would be easy to imagine that the military leadership at both the command and field level, who may be conerned about regime stability and authority, opted to intrept liberally their new missions in a much more aggessive manner than intended. The military’s aggressive intereption would serve to both meet the need for a response to the November 9th humiliation AND serve as a muscular and overt way to probe Kim’s aptitude and enthusiasm for contolling the military.

  19. GWR says:

    Very interesting analysis, indeed! Is it possible, though, that the sinking was ordered by Kim as a means to bolster his strength in an internal succession process (ensuring a smooth dynastic transition instead of perhaps a coup)? A risky move, to be sure, but direct retaliation from South Korea remains the less likely option (and perhaps North Korea expected more ambiguity over the cause of the sinking, and miscalculated?).

    And while more provocative than a missile test, one might see the sinking as a not unrealistic development on a continuum of escalation in the NLL area.

    Could Kim therefore have used the incident as a propaganda victory, cementing his position and allowing him to visit Beijing without fear of internal instability? Any subsequent responses from South Korea and the US, which will be well short of war, could also be stage-managed by Kim for his benefit.

    Overall, I would certainly like to understand more about the current leadership tensions and rivalries in North Korea.

  20. Dan says:

    Interesting article. Thanks for stepping back and considering things from a different angle. But it seems that if indeed this were an act of gross insubordination there would be signs of a shakeup. I also think that such a sign of disunion in the ranks would have prevented Kim Jong-il from going to China out of fear of a coup.

    It is not completely impossible that this was an act of insubordination from a lower ranking soldier, so desperate with the situation in the North that he attacked the Cheonan in the hopes of triggering a renewed Korean War and toppling the regime.

  21. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by VOA Seoul, twittkaa. twittkaa said: U. of Vienna #northkorea scholar Ruediger Frank: "we have reason to be really worried this time" about instability http://bit.ly/ayuRaP [...]

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.