Accessibility links

Seoul Cabinet Reshuffle Seen Tied to Naval Clash with North Korea

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has reshuffled his cabinet. The move is described, at least partly, as a response to declining public confidence in his government after last month's naval skirmish with North Korea. That clash, which left at least four South Korean sailors dead, may have also killed any prospects for President Kim's Sunshine Policy of engagement with Pyongyang.

President Kim Dae Jung has replaced about one-third of his cabinet members, including the prime minister and the defense minister. Cabinet changes had been expected as presidential elections approach at the end of the year, but analysts say Mr. Kim's administration has come under increasing criticism, as a result of the gun battle in the Yellow Sea on June 29.

Four South Korean sailors were killed, and 19 were wounded. An unknown number of North Koreans died in the incident. Each side blames the other for starting the fight, which occured in waters claimed by both countries.

The Kim Dae Jung administration says the incident will not de-rail the Sunshine Policy," but Professor Hyung-kook Kim of American University in Washington says the clash gave President Kim's critics ammunition.

"There has been some criticism against the Sunshine Policy from the beginning of the Kim Dae Jung administration," he said. "And as President Kim is in a situation where he could have less influence in terms of policy, due to [his] lame duck situation, I think the critics became more vocal criticizing the Sunshine Policy."

Professor Kim, the director of Asian studies at American University, says engagement with the North is the cornerstone of President's Kim's administration, so he has no option but to pursue it. The Seoul government may try to continue a dialogue with Pyongyang, he says, but any dialogue will be meaningless. The professor says North Korea will likely wait for the next South Korean administration before it considers any steps toward reconciliation.

Korea specialist Bill Drennan agrees the naval skirmish has virtually doomed Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine Policy. "As the North has steadily stuck its finger in Kim Dae-Jung's eye, no reciprocity, they've offered him really nothing tangible that he can hold out to the South Korean people as a tangible manifestation of the success of the sunshine policy. And so he has taken to saying, 'Well if nothing else, the security situation on the Korean peninsula has been fundamentally altered for the better.' And this clash knocks that one remaining prop out from under his claims of success of the Sunshine Policy. And in that regard it's sad, bordering on the tragic, I think."

Mr. Drennan, deputy director of research at the United States Institute of Peace, says efforts at North-South reconciliation are now on hold. He says the situation has reverted to what he calls the bad old days, before the historic Pyongyang summit in June 2000, between Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Yet neither Mr. Drennan nor Professor Kim expect more military confrontations in the immediate future. Mr. Kim believes the recent incident was North Korea's way of testing South Korean and U.S. reactions. Bill Drennan says the North knows it will not be able to catch the South Korean navy off guard again, and the technologically superior South would have the advantage.

However, two maritime salvage operations in the coming weeks could provoke further tension. South Korea says it plans to raise its boat that sank in the June 29 clash, and Japan wants to salvage a suspected North Korean ship that sank last last year in the East China Sea, after a gunbattle with the Japanese Coast Guard.

Pyongyang says the South Korean ship is in North Korean waters and Seoul should seek permission before launching a salvage operation. The South Korean government is not likely to agree to that demand.

The ship being raised by Japan sank in December after fleeing waters of Japan's exclusive economic zone. North Korea denies the ship belongs to Pyongyang, but most observers disagree. Mr. Drennan says it was probably some kind of intelligence operation that was discovered, and the North Koreans were likely surprised at how aggressive the Japanese were in pursuing them.

"We don't know what the mission was. It could have been the insertion of intelligence agents or the extraction of intelligence agents, or both," he said. "It could have been a drug running operation. Again, this is a government that does that sort of thing, the North Korean government. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that it was a way to spirit cash out of Japan from the Korean community that is pro-Pyongyang. They could have been on a surveillance mission."

Mr. Drennan says the salvage operation is likely to show that North Korea is an aggressive state that does not play by international rules. That result would provide even more ammunition to opponents of the Sunshine Policy.