South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will come under strong pressure to retaliate if firm proof emerges that North Korea sank a South Korean warship and killed 46 sailors. The question is, how?
Suspicions are growing that a torpedo ripped the 1,200-tonne corvette Cheonan apart near the disputed border between the two countries on March 26. If a multinational investigation now underway finds hard evidence, the attack would be one of the North’s deadliest on the South since the end of their 1950 to 1953 Korean War — but far from the first.
As previously, any military response will likely be ruled out. A counter-attack could ignite a broader conflict between the South and its nuclear-armed neighbor, which has thousands of conventionally armed missiles permanently targeted on Seoul.
“President Lee has no good options,” said Peter Beck, a North Korea specialist at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center.
“A military response would be too risky — even though he would be under considerable pressure from his conservative base to take some concrete action,” he said.
Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped there would be “no miscalculation” that could spark a new war between North Korea and South Korea.
There is talk about appealing for action in the UN but such approaches have accomplished very little previously with the North, Beck said.
“The only step South Korea could take would be to shut down the Kaesong joint industrial estate or to further restrict trade with the North,” he said.
“If Lee does curtail cooperation, it would further push the North into the arms of China economically. And one of South Korea’s worst nightmares is to have China in the driver’s seat in determining the North’s [eventual] fate,” Beck said.
Lee last week consulted former conservative presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Kim Young-sam, who both had to confront crises engineered by North Korean provocation in the 1980s and 1990s.
They both voiced suspicions Pyongyang was involved in the Cheonan incident but did not appear from press reports to suggest military retaliation.
Chang Yong-seok, director of research at the Institute for Peace Affairs, said he still believes a torpedo attack was unlikely. If the North were found responsible, “then the only thing we can do is to take this matter to the UN Security Council because the Korean War truce was signed by the UN,” Chang said, adding military measures would be difficult.
South Koreans are observing a week of national mourning. Despite the grief, “the public is prudent when it comes to military retaliation because the capital area is very close to the border and there could be a situation beyond our control,” said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
Survivors and experts say an underwater external explosion hit the ship, narrowing the cause to a torpedo or a drifting mine. Salvage workers are scouring the seabed for any fragments.
“If a torpedo is blamed conclusively, it should be seen as North Korea’s attack,” Baek said, saying the South could take the issue to the UN Security Council and request additional sanctions, or close down Kaesong.
Beck said any torpedo attack could be revenge for a naval clash in the area last November which left a North Korean patrol boat in flames. It was “unimaginable” that it would have been launched without approval from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, he said.
Proof of the North’s involvement could sink efforts to revive six-party nuclear disarmament talks which include South Korea, but few analysts had hopes these could make much progress in any case.
“If the six-party talks get killed by this, North Korea will be very happy,” Baek said, noting its reluctance to return to the forum.
Other motivating factors for such a deadly attack could lie internally within the communist state.
“North Korea may have believed that the provocation will be helpful in stabilizing the regime by boosting the morale of the military,” Baek said.
Beck said ensuring a smooth succession to Kim’s youngest son Jong-un was top priority.
“If it was a torpedo attack and the North eventually acknowledges this, it would be portrayed as a military achievement and a feather in Jong-un’s cap,” he said.
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