One month ago, March 26, the South Korean warship Cheonan was sailing near Baengnyeong Island. This island is a frequent site of clashes between North and South Korea; while the island belongs to the South, the North claims the waters around it. In the evening dark, a massive explosion rocked the warship. Her back broken by the blast, the ship split in two and went down. Of the 104 officers and crew aboard, 46 died. A 47th man, a Navy rescue diver, died shortly thereafter while trying to save others.
Suspicion, naturally, turned to the enigmatic, unstable North Korean regime of Kim Jong-il. The North Korean dictator, known for his paranoia and provocative acts, is believed to be in poor health. Increasingly irrational behavior was one concern shared by many international experts; the man was dangerously unstable when he was in good health. How much more psychologically deranged would he become as his health worsened and his days drew short? Sinking a South Korean warship without provocation would seem to offer evidence of just how far the regime is now willing to go.
While the South Korean government has yet to officially declare the Cheonan was lost to an attack by the North, the writing is on the wall. The Cheonan’s broken hull was raised from the bottom and examined. The explosion that sank the ship was not the result of an accidental collision or an internal malfunction. South Korea’s Minister of Defense has said that the information indicates that a “bubble jet,” or an underwater explosion, struck the vessel. This type of explosion is exactly what one would expect from a torpedo, such as the ones used by the North Korean navy.
And yet South Korea still is playing their cards very close to the vest. Despite the mounting evidence that North Korea attacked without warning and killed 46 South Korean soldiers, official reaction has been muted. The government has promised to get to the bottom of the issue, but has refrained from assigning any blame to North Korea. The Minister of Defense has speculated that it might have been an attack from the North, but now that it’s virtually proven, South Korea’s silence is almost comical.
Almost, but not quite. If South Korea were to officially declare that the sinking of the Cheonan was a hostile attack, it would be very hard for the country to refrain from some kind of retaliation. The South Korean public is outraged over the loss of their warship and the government is facing intense pressure to strike back. And yet, as is always the case when democracies go to war, a campaign that starts off with the full support of the people can quickly find its support ebbing away once soldiers start coming home in body bags.
South Korea would risk more than most democracies were it to go to war. Unlike the Europeans and Australians, Canadians and Americans, the South Koreans don’t have the luxury of fighting their battles in someone else’s backyard. Their capital city, Seoul, is well within range of North Korean artillery. Even though the South Korean military is far more advanced than the obsolete (if numerically large) North Korean forces, quantity has a quality all its own. North Korea’s Stalin-era weapons would fare poorly in battle, sure…but could make life unbearable for South Korea’s citizens and devastate its economy.
For South Korea, there are few good options. Even if it did wage war successfully against North Korea, what would it have gained? It would conquer the world’s largest refugee camp, a nation of some 24 million half-starved fanatics, victims of arguably the most oppressive totalitarian regime the world has ever known. The responsibility of feeding that many people, of building their economy up from virtually nothing and of finding some way to integrate the captive North Korean population, is a task so daunting as to ensure that South Korea would never attempt it.
North Korea’s nuclear stockpile would likely not play a decisive role in the conflict. They are believed to have enough fissile material to have constructed up to eight warheads, but it is uncertain whether or not any of those potential weapons have been assembled and are capable of being used in combat (building a nuclear bomb is hard enough, making it small enough to fit atop a missile is something else entirely).
Even if the North was incapable of using its nuclear weapons decisively, however, they would still be an incredibly destabilizing factor in any potential war. The United States would be unhappy to see nuclear weapons used, as it would then be expected to protect its South Korean allies, or else risk discrediting the concept of its “nuclear umbrella” of protection it affords its allies. China and Japan, similarly, would be most displeased at the thought of nuclear warheads exploding on the Korean peninsula and spreading radioactive fallout over their countries. And the mere threat of nuclear attack would be enough to cause panic and economic chaos in South Korea. All things considered, unless North Korea’s atomics could be reliably attacked and destroyed at the outset of any war, South Korea would do well to avoid a fight.
South Korea, with no good options, will almost certainly find a way to keep the peace. It might declare that it can’t reliably prove that North Korea attacked the Cheonan, thus having an excuse to get out of war. It might call for, and get, tough international condemnation and possibly economic sanctions. It might even refer the incident to the United Nations, where it will be studied in committees and eventually reported on after tempers have cooled. That will infuriate the families of the lost sailors, but is the right choice in the short term.
But in the long term, South Korea must contend with a newly aggressive North Korean regime that has shown that it is willing to commit unprovoked acts of war. South Korea will understandably want to avoid going to war today. But it must prepare itself for the bleak possibility that the next North Korean provocation might not be as easy to ignore than the deaths of 46 sailors. If Kim Jong-il chooses to mark his last days with a blaze of glory, he’ll get his wish. And all Koreans will pay the consequences.