North Korea: No good answers

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When one country fires on and sinks another country’s naval vessel, it’s usually regarded as an act of war. But when the attack is carried out by North Korea against South Korea, two nations bristling with weapons pointed at each other that must not be fired lest they spark a cataclysmic global conflict, the only practical response is to take extreme umbrage.

That’s what Seoul did Thursday when investigators formally charged Pyongyang with the March sinking of the Cheonan, a patrol vessel that went down March 26 in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 crew members. A multinational team of experts turned up overwhelming evidence, including torpedo parts that clearly came from a North Korean model. In response, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has been trying to drum up support for tighter United Nations sanctions and is expected to sever trade and aid ties with the North.

The conundrum for Lee is that he can’t respond militarily because absolutely no one wants to resume the Korean War. Meanwhile, attempts over half a century to change the behavior of North Korea’s regime, involving every diplomatic carrot and stick that could be devised, have been fruitless. So what do you do when shooting back is unthinkable and diplomacy is ineffective? You call for tighter U.N. sanctions — a fairly empty gesture because China, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, is wary of approving tough penalties lest they destabilize the North’s government and create a refugee problem for Beijing.

The Obama administration, distracted by its attempts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, seems to have largely given up on Pyongyang’s. The administration’s North Korea policy is mainly geared towardmaintaining the status quo. By waiting out dictator Kim Jong Il, who is thought to have health problems, Obama may be hoping that his successor will be easier to deal with. Yet ignoring Kim is no more effective than plying him with carrots and sticks; there’s reason to believe the Cheonan sinking was an effort by Kim to attract attention in hopes of winning economic concessions. In the past, provocative behavior by the North has produced precisely such benefits.

With no good answers, there is at least a bad one: Giving Kim what he wants. For now, the toughest possible approach is warranted, including measures to strengthen the South’s defenses against Kim’s arsenal of submarines, missiles and unconventional weapons. Although it’s important to continue delivering food aid to the North’s starving people, the Obama administration should also consider returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which it was removed in 2008 in an effort to spur nuclear concessions. The six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program should eventually be restarted — but not now.