SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — South Korea’s foreign minister bluntly blamed the March sinking of the Cheonan warship and the death of 46 sailors on North Korea today.
“We have the evidence,” Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told the Monitor. Asked how South Korea would respond, Mr. Yu promised “very firm action” but avoided specifics.
Yu’s comments came a day before the release of the results of an inquiry into the sinking of the Cheonan. But with Seoul already making it clear that North Korea fired the torpedo that sank the Cheonan the question is: What will the South do about it?
“To release the outcome of the investigation is easy,” says Kim Tae-woo, senior North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute. “What to do after that is the most difficult part.”
Seoul is now likely to seek international action, perhaps by asking for tougher sanctions on North Korea from the United Nations Security Council.
South Korean defense officials are confident they have sufficient evidence to convince skeptics who have accused the government here of rushing to judgment against the North. Defense officials say investigators discovered the propeller blade of a torpedo with a North Korean serial number on it as well as traces of an explosive used in North Korean torpedoes discovered off the west coast seven years ago.
But when it comes to options, Mr. Kim is certain of only one thing. “I would exclude the two extreme scenarios,” he says. “The first is doing nothing, and the second is a tit-for-tat retaliation.”
To the United Nations
Between those unlikely extremes, he and other analysts expect that South Korea and the United States will bring the attack before the UN Security Council in a demand for tougher sanctions beyond those imposed by the UN after North Korea’s second nuclear test one year ago.
Besides urging the Security Council “to condemn the North Korean provocation… we need to tighten the sanctions in a way that will hurt North Korea,” said Shim Jae-hoon, a commentator on North-South Korean issues.
The role of China, North Korea’s primary source of economic and military aid, will be critical. “This case really puts China on the spot,” Mr. Shim said. “They have to join the sanctions. It will be very difficult for them to get out.”
How China will respond is probably the biggest question mark on the minds of analysts here.
“This is the moment for China,” says Choi Jong-kun, specialist in East Asian security at Yonsei University. “China cares about its international image. They don’t want to be perceived as a threat.”
At the same time, he said, Chinese leaders worry about “the stability of the Korean peninsula” and do not want to see unrest or an upheaval that might send hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fleeing across the Yalu and Tumen rivers into China.
The Cheonan incident likely means that six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, last held in Beijing in December 2008, will not resume any time soon.
“Nobody is talking about six-party talks for the time being,” said Choi Jin-wook, senior analyst on North Korean issues at the Korean Institute of National Unification.
Cutting North Korea off
Mr. Choi and others believe South Korea may curtail imports of North Korean sand and seafood, items that it can easily obtain elsewhere, depriving North Korea of as much as $200 million in profit.
South Korea is not expected to bar small- and medium-sized companies from light industrial production in the North Korean city of Kaesong, about 40 miles north of Seoul, but could stop expansion of South Korean operations there. South Korean factories employ about 40,000 North Korean workers in an industrial zone in Kaesong, pouring $50 million a year into North Korean government coffers.
Although South Korea is not expected to respond militarily, patrols along the Northern Limit Line below which North Korean vessels are banned have increased since the sinking of the Cheonan. South Korea is also considering barring North Korean vessels from entering the straits between Jeju island and the South Korean mainland, meaning they will have to take a much longer route between their west and east coast ports.
Tensions may also increase if South Korea resumes loudspeaker broadcasts of news and propaganda into North Korea, an irritant that both sides agreed to stop during the years of attempts at North-South reconciliation.
“For more than 10 years South Korea has immersed itself in the romantic idea of the end of the Cold War,” said Shim. “This incident was glaring proof that North Korea remains essentially unchanged.”