While the dispute between North and South Korea over the torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel has largely been overshadowed by events unfolding within the waters outside of Gaza, both incidents revealed just how divergent global reactions can be when confronting incidents of similar gravity. They also provide a disturbing glimpse into how the perceived instability of one nation affects the willingness of others to hold them accountable.
South Korea recently revealed that substantial evidence implicated North Korea in the March 26 torpedo attack against its naval warship the Cheonan. While this unprovoked attack resulted in the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors it received only a tepid response from world leaders. China, long finding difficulty in balancing its relationship with Pyongyang against its desire to maintain stability along the Korean peninsula, suggested that it “is making its own assessment” of the Cheonan incident and followed that, “calm and restraint” should prevail. United Nations Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon only offered that the South Korean findings were “deeply troubling.”
These anemic denunciations toward North Korea provide a sharp contrast to how global opinion formed following Israel’s confrontation with occupants of the Mavi Marmara on May 31. The Mavi Marmara, one of six vessels that comprised a flotilla of ships attempting to run an Israeli blockade of Gaza, was repeatedly instructed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to alter its forward course toward the Hamas-controlled territory. After ignoring the warnings, IDF personnel boarded the vessel and a tragic confrontation ensued which resulted in the deaths of nine passengers.
UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon immediately declared, “It is vital that there is a full investigation to determine exactly how this bloodshed took place.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu expressed China’s outrage. “We were shocked by the Israeli attack which led to severe casualties and condemn it.” North Korea, in a typically brazen manner, decried Israel’s actions as a “crime against humanity” and vehemently denounced Israel for its “indiscriminate attack on a flotilla of boats” providing “humanitarian” assistance to Gaza.
The justifications for the Israeli interception of the Mavi Marmara far outweigh any upon which North Korea could justify its sinking of the Cheonan, if, of course, it even acknowledged doing so; however, global reactions to both incidents was noticeably different.
Although Insani Yardim Vakfi, known by its Turkish initials IHH, had bought, supplied, and funded the Mavi Marmara’s “humanitarian” voyage it also appears to have had significant and long-standing ties to extremist groups. According to an intelligence report provided by the Danish Institute for International Studies, the IHH was found to have “conspired in the mid-1990’s to ‘recruit veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war [jihad]. In particular, some men were sent into war zones in Muslim countries in order to acquire combat experience.’”
Considering the tenuous and often violent relationship between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory of Gaza it is unsurprising that Israel would not allow vessels operating under the questionable guise of humanitarianism to reach its shores. Israel was rightly concerned over the potential financial, military, and logistical assistance that if feared may be heading for Hamas.
Given that substantial evidence illuminates Israel’s actions while no such clarity supports the actions of North Korea; why is there such a disparity between the global backlash toward Israel and the scarcity of such condemnations toward North Korea?
Since Israel has long been a favored target for rebuke by many throughout the world, the haste with which the criticisms flew is regrettably unsurprising. The failure to condemn North Korea’s actions, however, appears to rest upon a very different sentiment: Fear.
Some may argue that it is implausible for many of the world’s most powerful nations to fear the repercussions of criticizing a small, economically feeble nation ruled by a reclusive despot. This may sound reasonable until one considers that North Korea possesses a nuclear deterrent.
The unpredictability of North Korea and the uncertainty to which it could engage South Korea in an all-out war, employing its nuclear capabilities, allows Kim Jong-Il to engage in reckless and provocative behavior. Kim can wield this leverage over his more powerful neighbors simply because they fear the repercussions of provocation more than they fear the underlying acts of aggression itself.
This brings us to the long simmering issue of Iran. The respective leaders of Iran and North Korea, though motivated by wholly different considerations, are nonetheless kindred spirits. If the aggressive actions of Kim Jong-Il provoked a less than compelling rebuke from her detractors then with what impunity might Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran act should it achieve a similar nuclear capacity?
Iran recently offered to provide a military escort to future “humanitarian” flotillas attempting to run Israel’s blockade of Gaza. How might Israel’s reaction, or perhaps that of the United States, be affected by a similar Iranian proposal once Ahmadinejad obtains his desired nuclear arsenal? The idea provokes considerable anxiety.