South Korea must demand reparations for the Cheonan, but if the North fails to comply, what then? Talk does not faze mass-murdering dictators. When Adolf Hitler militarized the Rhineland, the Western allies flinched -- 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 U.S. President Barack Obama's commitment to mutual defense. His diplomatic track record, and his personality, incline toward appeasement.
South Korea is mulling tough economic and political sanctions. North Korean elites, however, shield themselves from the consequences of sanctions, and any truly effective sanctions regimen requires rigorous Chinese support. Securing firm support is unlikely as long as Beijing sees South Korean and U.S. leadership as too supine for military action.
Covert options include stoking factionalism within North Korea's armed forces and perhaps among Kim Jong-Il's sons. Kim favors his third son. Setting prince on prince is an ancient tool for toppling tyrant kings. South Korea must pursue these fratricidal solutions. They take time, however, and meanwhile, the nuclear clock ticks.
Destroying selected Northern naval facilities by air attack is an option, though this involves striking land targets, which Kim's propagandists would portray as escalation.
Explicit naval tit-for-tat, which exposes and exploits North Korean strategic weakness before a global audience, has more political impact. Seoul and Washington should consider seizing North Korean ships in open waters around the globe. Ships and cargoes could be held pending reparations. In Asia, Pyongyang might route its ships through Chinese and Vietnamese coastal water (paying bribes to local coast guards in the process), but eventually they will encounter the U.S. Navy. The maritime cowards will encounter cameras and appear on YouTube. The Google world will get it.
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 U.S., its closest ally, cannot avoid forcefully responding to the Cheonan attack because it prefigures a more terrible future where a further emboldened, fully nuclear-capable North Korea acts even more brutally.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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