Talk to Pyongyang

South Korea and America need to press hard for a deal with North Korea before higher tensions erupt in more violence.

The South Korean naval ship Cheonan sank off the west coast of Korea on March 26. 58 crewmembers were rescued, but at least 38 were killed, and 8 are missing. This past week, evidence began to appear pointing to a North Korean torpedo attack as the cause. If Pyongyang was involved, it would be the most serious North Korean attack since the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner. Such a provocation would certainly appear to demand some type of retaliation to maintain credible deterrence. However, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak faces a set of bad or worse options, and the bottom line is that tensions on the peninsula are at their highest in recent memory.

Raising and examining the Cheonan's wreckage is a logistical and technical feat, so even after three weeks, investigators have not yet announced a final conclusion about the cause. The ship went down in disputed waters where the North and South Korean navies have clashed many times before, including an exchange of fire in November 2009 that left a North Korean vessel badly damaged. There has been much public speculation about the current Cheonan incident, with over 80 percent of South Koreans believing that North Korea sank the ship with a torpedo. Lee Myung-bak commented on April 20 that, "I can't say for sure until clear evidence comes out. I think it would be better to be cautious." South Korean officials have said that evidence and survivor testimony point to an external explosion bringing down the ship, but Cheonan crew say that sonar did not detect an approaching torpedo. An international investigation (including U.S., Australian and Swedish investigators) is ongoing.

If North Korea was responsible, the incident is extremely serious and impossible to ignore. Yet South Korea has fewer options than one might think. Major South Korean or U.S. military action is highly unlikely, given the risks of escalation to all-out war. The costs of a war on the peninsula would be astronomical, so without an imminent and existential threat to the South, the Lee government will not risk starting one. Instead, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan has suggested that Seoul may take the issue to the United Nations Security Council. Marginally strengthened economic sanctions and deeper isolation of North Korea would be the likely result, as would further postponement of six-party nuclear-disarmament talks.

If North Korea is not found to be responsible, many South Koreans may suspect that their government sidestepped blaming North Korea to avoid difficult military and diplomatic decisions, and to spare South Korea's globalized economy the uncertainty of increased tensions. The activity and condition of the Cheonan before its sinking, the decisions of commanders, and the government's handling of the investigation are all under close scrutiny by the South Korean public, especially the bereaved families. If mistakes were made by South Korean officials, there will be calls for resignations in the military and civilian leaderships, and the political opposition will strongly criticize the administration ahead of local elections in June. In light of this, President Lee has been focusing on concluding a thorough and transparent investigation, and strengthening military capabilities and procedures to avoid a similar incident in the future.

Stepping back from the Choenan incident itself, President Lee has kept his campaign promise of taking a harder line on North Korea until Pyongyang renounces nuclear weapons. But it appears that tensions between South and North Korea are higher now than in the past decade, and there is little evidence that tougher South Korean policies have yet to elicit greater cooperation or reciprocity from North Korea. For instance, Pyongyang has recently threatened to seize South Korean assets at the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang tourism project, and has shown little willingness to make conciliatory military gestures. The Cheonan incident could be leveraged by Seoul to achieve greater international coordination on pressuring North Korea, but whether such pressure would change North Korean behavior remains to be seen. President Lee may instead opt for a spectacular gambit: arranging a North-South Korean summit to pursue a "strategic bargain" whereby North Korea would offer concrete progress on nuclear disarmament in exchange for aid and reduced tensions. But some will say, "we've seen that movie before, and it doesn't end, it just repeats . . . "