Sunday, April 25, 2010

Getting Closer to the Real Issue

The South Koreans are getting closer to demonstrating what sank their corvette, and who did it:

An explosion from a torpedo likely sank a South Korean warship that went down near the tense border with North Korea last month, the South's defense minister said Sunday amid growing speculation Pyongyang may be behind the blast.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said the most likely cause of the disaster was a torpedo exploding near the ship, with the force of the underwater blast ripping the vessel apart. Investigators who examined salvaged wreckage separately announced Sunday that a close-range, external explosion likely sank it.

This is serious stuff, so assuming too much as a basis of action can't be done. The South Koreans need to nail this down before reacting militarily.

As I've grown to conclude over several posts on this subject, I think the South Korean response should take three forms:

1. Increase economic warfare on Pyongyang to squeeze them more.

2. Bolster military assets on disputed islands they hold in the area their ship was sunk.

3. Make something blow up in North Korea and deny responsibility as the North has done.

The first two can be done without solid proof. Suspicion, given North Korea's history of hostility, is good enough to take those actions. And it has the advantage of playing to South Korea's strengths and North Korea's weakness. Keep the focus at sea away from Seoul and on economic warfare and not military action.

The last needs firm backing. If it comes to general war, South Korea and America will win. But the price will be high. Best to keep the primary action in the arena where North Korea is losing--their dismal economy; prepare for the next time North Korea tries something at sea to catch them in the act and kill the attackers on the spot; and send a deniable message to North Korea's rulers that two can play the game of semi-war.

Not that there isn't risk to retaliating even quietly with force. North Korea's rulers might not believe they are too weak to win. Or they may believe South Korea is too weak morally to win despite North Korean material weakness. Or North Korea might believe their nuclear devices provide a shield that allows the North Koreans to make whatever provocation they wish and South Korea won't dare respond. Or North Korea might decide that their only hope of winning is to use their rotting military power before it collapses to attempt to reverse their losing position economically. Or there could simply be a miscalculation that escalates to a bigger fight that leads to a North Korean bombardment of Seoul. Pyongyang did mention that, indirectly:

"If the imperialist enemies intrude into" the North's territory, "its army will beat them back at a stroke by mercilessly showering bombs and shells on them," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in an editorial carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. It didn't mention the ship sinking.

But there is also a risk of doing nothing. If North Korea believes that their proto-nukes give them a license to kill, the North Koreans will attack South Korea again and again, in different theaters in the region and globally, and in different forms.

And South Korea can use proof to bolster the first action by taking the evidence to the United Nations Security Council to see if the vaunted international community will do something. After all, the original North Korean aggression was a matter for the UN.

This could yet get ugly. Regardless of how South Korea plays it.