In late March, an explosion in disputed waters off the Korean Peninsula sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. This week, investigators concluded a weapon, possibly a German-made torpedo, destroyed the ship.
North Korea deploys mini-subs and commando submersibles that deliver torpedoes with extraordinary stealth, so Pyonyang's strange Stalinist regime has the capability to conduct surreptitious naval attacks and then plausibly deny responsibility.
North Korea has the weapons, and it has intent -- decades of demonstrated intent. For 60 years, North Korea has repeatedly attacked South Korea. The Korean War began 60 years ago this June, and it isn't over, not officially -- an armistice holds combat in tenuous abeyance, not a peace treaty. One wonders if the naval attack isn't an anniversary celebration of a disguised, macabre sort, appealing to the malign psyche of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-Il.
The Korean War started with an explosive communist attack that raised the specter of global nuclear war. Now it appears it may end with a communist implosion, one that risks igniting a brief but terrible nuclear conflict in East Asia, should North Korea hit Seoul or Tokyo with a nuke.
Seoul's suburbs lie within range of North Korean artillery. A North Korean fighter-bomber, heading south from communist airspace, will reach Seoul in minutes. South Korea's Samsung Corp. is one of the largest private employers in the Texas county in which I live. This means Pyongyang doesn't need nukes to attack Texas' economy, a fact of life among the 21st century's economically, politically and technologically linked.
Global linkage and Pyongyang's nuclear quest explain the caution stirring this strange twilight of an old war -- caution expressed in Washington, caution followed to the point of kowtow by a South Korean government that hoped the Cheonan suffered a tragic accident.
The South Korean people, however, are outraged, as their government -- if only for its own political survival -- says it is preparing a response.
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.