The Korean War began 60 years ago this June, and believe it or not, it never officially ended! An armistice holds combat in tenuous abeyance, not a peace treaty. You can not help but wonder if this latest attack isn't some sort of macabre anniversary celebration, appealing to the morbid psyche of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-Il. Pyongyang's nuclear quest explains the caution stirring this strange twilight of an old war. Caution is being expressed in Washington and followed to the point of kowtow by both The United States and South Korean governments that were hoping the Cheonan suffered a tragic accident.
The South Korean people, however, are outraged. So now, finally, their government (if only for its own political survival) says it is preparing a response. That response should include South Korea’s demand for reparations for the Cheonan. The problem is, if the North fails to comply, what then? Talk does not seem to have much effect on mass-murdering dictators. When Adolf Hitler militarized the Rhineland, the Western allies talked -- and the Nazis became more audacious. The Rhineland was a strategic probe of allied will. Sinking the Cheonan is a probe of the U.S.-South Korean relationship and ultimately a probe of President Obama's commitment to mutual defense. Unfortunately, his diplomatic track record, and his personality have demonstrated an inclination towards appeasement.
The West has been trying economic and political sanctions. North Korean elites, however, shield themselves from the consequences of sanctions. Besides, any truly effective sanctions would require thorough Chinese support. Securing firm support is unlikely as long as Beijing sees South Korean and U.S. leadership as unwilling and unlikely to use military action.
Without sanctions, what other options are there? Well, destroying some Northern naval facilities by air attack is an option, though this involves striking land targets, which obviously risks North Korea seeing this as escalation and a further excuse to attack the South.
Another way which exposes and exploits North Korean strategic weakness before a world audience and has more political impact would be a kind of naval “tit for tat”. Seoul and Washington should consider seizing North Korean ships in open waters around the world. Ships and cargoes could then be held pending reparations. In Asia, Pyongyang might route its ships through Chinese and Vietnamese coastal waters (paying bribes to local coast guards in the process), but eventually they will encounter the U.S. Navy, something they have learned to avoid as much as possible.
In the Rhineland fiasco, the Western allies lost face. This Korean confrontation is also about political face, and it's time Kim and his killers lost theirs.
South Korea and the United States, its closest ally, cannot avoid forcefully responding to the Cheonan attack because it encourages a fully nuclear-capable North Korea to act even more boldly and more brutally.
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