U.S. Implicates North Korean Leader in Attack
By DAVID E. SANGER
Published: May 22, 2010
WASHINGTON — A new American intelligence analysis of a deadly torpedo attack on a South Korean warship concludes that Kim Jong-il, the ailing leader of North Korea, must have authorized the torpedo assault, according to senior American officials who cautioned that the assessment was based on their sense of the political dynamics there rather than hard evidence.
The officials said they were increasingly convinced that Mr. Kim ordered the sinking of the ship, the Cheonan, to help secure the succession of his youngest son.
“We can’t say it is established fact,” said one senior American official who was involved in the highly classified assessment, based on information collected by many of the country’s 16 intelligence agencies. “But there is very little doubt, based on what we know about the current state of the North Korean leadership and the military.”
Nonetheless, both the conclusion and the timing of the assessment could be useful to the United States as it seeks to rally support against North Korea.
On Monday, South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, who has moved cautiously since the assault, is expected to call for the United Nations Security Council to condemn the attack and is likely to terminate the few remaining trade ties between North and South that provide the North with hard currency.
But those steps have little chance of proving meaningful unless China, which hosted Mr. Kim two weeks ago, agrees to join the condemnation and refuses to make up whatever revenue North Korea loses from any trade embargoes. China, North Korea’s last true ally, has traditionally been reluctant to pressure the North too much, even when the North Koreans conducted nuclear tests, for fear of toppling the government and sending a flood of refugees across its border.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will be in Beijing when the South Korean action is announced, leading a delegation of 200 American officials, including roughly half of the Obama administration’s cabinet, in an annual “strategic dialogue” with Chinese leaders on a variety of economic and political issues.
So far, at least in public, both American and South Korean leaders have been careful never to link Mr. Kim to the sinking of the Cheonan in March, which killed 46 sailors. Officials said that was in part because of the absence of hard evidence — difficult to come by in the rigidly controlled North — but also largely because both countries were trying to avoid playing into Mr. Kim’s hands by casting one of the worst attacks since the 1953 armistice as another piece of lore about the Kim family taking on South Korea and the West.
The North’s state propaganda surrounding that imagery has been used by the Kim family to sustain two generations of leaders since the end of World War II. Under the leading theory of the American intelligence agencies, Mr. Kim ordered the attack to re-establish both his control and his credentials after a debilitating stroke two years ago, and by extension reinforcing his right to name his son Kim Jong-un as his successor.
North Korea has denied any involvement in the attack, despite the presentation of forensic evidence on Thursday — including parts of the torpedo found in the wreckage — that experts from three countries said established that the torpedo was launched from a North Korean submarine.
Although the American officials who spoke about the intelligence assessment would not reveal much about what led them to conclude that Mr. Kim was directly involved, one factor appeared to be intelligence that he appeared on April 25, the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, with a military unit that intelligence agencies believe to have been responsible for the attack.
Mr. Kim used the event to praise the group, Unit 586, the officials said, and around that time a fourth star appears to have been given to Gen. Kim Myong-guk, who officials believe may have played a crucial role in executing the attack. General Kim is believed to have been demoted to a three-star general last year, perhaps in response to the humiliation that took place after a North Korean ship ventured into South Korean waters. The North Korean ship was all but destroyed, and some analysts believe the attack on the Cheonan, which was in South Korean waters, was planned as retribution.
“Nobody is going to take overt credit for the sinking,” said Jonathan Pollack, a professor at the Naval War College and an expert on North Korea’s military. “But Kim’s visit to this unit has all the hallmarks of congratulating them for a job well done.”
The senior American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence assessment is classified, said they ruled out the idea that General Kim or another military officer decided on his own to attack, but they did not explain how they reached that conclusion.
Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former official in the National Security Council during President George W. Bush’s second term in office, noted that when Mr. Kim was on the rise three decades ago, “there were similar incidents designed to build his credibility” as a leader.
The Cheonan episode has posed some difficult choices for the Obama administration at a time when its national security team is preoccupied with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
In an intense series of back-channel discussions with Mr. Lee, senior administration officials, including President Obama, have praised South Korea for its calm response. Like the South Koreans, American officials fear that any military retaliation against the North could quickly escalate, leading to rocket attacks on Seoul, major casualties and a panic among investors in South Korea. At the same time, they worry that if North Korea gets through the episode without paying a price — one that American officials decline to define — it could embolden the North Korean military.
The North Korean defense commission, which rarely issues public statements, turned out a fiery-sounding warning last week, saying it would respond to any military retaliation with “all-out war.”