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The Incredible Shrinking Crisis: The Sinking of the Cheonan and Sino-Korean Relations

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When the South Korean naval ship Cheonan sank on March 26, 2010, under much speculation over a North Korean torpedo attack, so too did the hopes of many South Koreans for President Lee Myung-bak’s policy of strategic “neglect” toward Pyongyang, not to mention aspirations for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Yet less than one year later, just as relations between the two Koreas appeared to be taking a turn for the better, North Korean artillery shells began falling on Yeonpyeong Island on November 23, 2010. This attack sent inter-Korean relations back into a crisis stage. s the frst such attack on South Korean territory since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Yeonpyeong Island shelling provoked outrage among a Korean populace that was noticeably ambivalent in the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking. As the denouement of theCheonan incident made clear, however, it would be naïve to assume that much has changed on the Korean peninsula as a result of these two attacks. This is not the case, however, for relations between Seoul and Beijing, which remained amicable after the Cheonan sinking, but have since soured over the Yeonpyeong Island shelling. In particular, the two attacks have illuminated three emerging trends on the Korean peninsula: China’s role as the ultimate arbiter for future crises between the two Koreas; Beijing’s ongoing prioritization of its strategic interests above its economic ones; and South Korea’s continued strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis North Korea as a result of its policy of deference over deterrence.

Jeremy Chan is a graduate of Princeton University, where he earned an A.B. in Comparative Literature. After graduation, he taught English for a year in southern Italy before moving to Beijing, where he worked and studied for another two years. He matriculated in the Hopkins-Nanjing Center in fall 2008, and continued on to SAIS to complete his M.A. in International Relations, concentrating in China and Korea Studies. Jeremy’s academic interests include East Asian political economy, Sino-U.S. relations, and the Korean peninsula, and he hopes to pursue a career in journalism or academia.