Taming Pyongyang

America and South Korea need to push China to take the lead in curbing North Korean aggression.

Suspicions continue to mount that North Korea torpedoed the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette which sank more than a month ago in the Yellow Sea to the west of the Korean peninsula. Policy makers in both Seoul and Washington are pondering how to respond. The potential, even if small, of renewed conflict on the peninsula demonstrates that today’s status quo is unsatisfactory for all of the North’s neighbors.

The Korean War ended in an armistice nearly six decades ago. No peace treaty was ever signed; over the years the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea committed numerous acts of war, most dramatically attempting to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a visit to Burma and seizing the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo. Conflict was avoided because the United States, long the senior partner to the Republic of Korea in their military alliance, refused to risk igniting a new conflict.

In recent years the DPRK’s conduct has remained predictably belligerent but constrained: fiery threats, diplomatic walk-outs, policy reversals, and unreasonable demands have mixed with occasional cooperative gestures as Washington and Seoul attempted to dissuade the North from developing nuclear weapons.

North Korean relations recently have been in a down cycle. Pyongyang has walked out of the long-running Six Party talks and failed in its attempt to engage Washington. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has ended the ROK’s “Sunshine Policy,” which essentially entailed shipping money and tourists north irrespective of the DPRK’s conduct, causing North Korea to downgrade economic and diplomatic contacts and even recently confiscate South Korean investments. Japan’s relations with the North remain stalled over the lack of accounting over the kidnapping of Japanese citizens years ago.

Still, for at least two decades Pyongyang had eschewed military action. Shots were fired between South and North Korean ships last November near the disputed boundary in the Yellow Sea, but no harm was done. Brinkmanship was the DPRK’s standard diplomatic strategy. Triggering a new war was not. Why the North would sink a South Korean vessel is a matter of speculation. More critical is the response. Now what?

The issue is most pressing in Seoul. South Korean officials say the investigation continues as they seek definitive evidence that a torpedo sunk the Cheonan. The tragedy would be no less if the cause was a mine, but the latter could be dismissed as an unfortunate occurrence rather than deliberate attack.

If the sinking was intentional, however, the ROK must respond. To do nothing would reward the North and encourage additional irresponsible action. President Lee Myung-bak has said: “I’m very committed to responding in a firm manner if need be.”

One South Korean diplomat suggested to me that the South will seek Security Council condemnation of the DPRK. This is in line with President Lee’s promise “to cooperate with the international community in taking necessary measures when the results are out.” But even if Seoul won Chinese support for a UN resolution, the ROK would have to take bilateral measures. That certainly would end investment and aid, likely would prevent negotiations and possibly would entail military retaliation.

The result not only would mean a serious and prolonged worsening of bilateral relations and increase in bilateral tensions, but could end any chance—admittedly today very slim—of reversing North Korean nuclear development. Moreover, a military strike would entail a chance of war. Tit-for-tat retaliation might spiral out of control. The potential consequences are horrifying.

The ROK nevertheless might be willing to take the risk. Not Washington. The United States is cooperating in the investigation and reportedly urging the Lee government to wait for proof before acting. But even if the DPRK is culpable, the last thing the Obama administration wants is another war. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month: “I hope that there is no talk of war, there is no action or miscalculation that could provoke a response that might lead to conflict.” From America’s standpoint, avoiding a potentially bloody war on the Korean peninsula while heavily involved in Afghanistan and still tied down in Iraq is far more important than South Korean concerns over justice and credibility.

The People’s Republic of China also would be a big loser in any war: refugees would and conflict could spill over the Yalu. The North Korean state likely would disappear, leaving a united Korea allied with America and hosting U.S. troops near China’s border. Beijing’s international reputation would suffer as its policy of aiding the North was fully and dramatically discredited.

Japan would be less vulnerable to the consequences of war but could be the target of North Korean attempts to strike out. Undoubtedly, Tokyo also would be asked to contribute to the peninsula’s reconstruction.

Of course, North Korea and its people would suffer the most. The former would cease to exist. That would be an international good, but millions of North Koreans likely would die or otherwise suffer along the way. War would be a tragic end to decades of hardship and isolation.

What to do? Seoul needs some degree of certainty before acting. So long as the sinking might have been caused by a mine, the ROK cannot act decisively.

If a torpedo attack is the most likely cause, however, winning Security Council backing would be a useful step. Then finding the right level of response, including possibly closing the Kaesong industrial park in the North or targeting a North Korean vessel for destruction, would be necessary. If it chooses the latter, the ROK would need Washington’s backing and China’s understanding. Finally, a lot of people in several countries would have to cross their fingers and say some prayers.