Torpedoed Warship Inflames Tensions on Korean Peninsula

South Korea accuses the North of killing 46 sailors

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It's official: South Korea has formally accused North Korea of sinking a South Korean warship with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors. The announcement comes after an international investigation into the Cheonan's sinking in March. North Korea has already denied involvement. Relations between the Koreas have always been tense, but after this sign of aggression, many are asking: could it upset the fragile balance in the region and derail tentative U.S. talks with Pyonyang over its nuclear program? How bad is this situation, and where does it go from here?

  • In a Nutshell  "South Korea's formal accusation," writes Mark Landler, kicking off his analysis for The New York Times, " ... will set off a diplomatic drumbeat to punish North Korea, backed by the United States and other nations, which could end up in the United Nations Security Council."
  • The Task Ahead  Time's Bill Powell lays out the policy dilemma for "Seoul and its allies in Washington and Tokyo--not to mention North Korea's patron in Beijing." The question is this: "what price should North Korea pay in response to what appears to have been an act of war and a clear violation of the armistice agreement that has kept a tenuous peace on the peninsula since 1953?" The Obama administration also has to decide whether, in light of the Cheonan attack, to abandon the Bush-era project of "six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the North."
  • Need to Find 'Goldilocks Approach'  William Ruger and Robert Farley write in The Korea Times, prior to the investigation's conclusion, that "President now faced with the difficult decision of responding in a manner that satisfies the country's national security needs without upsetting its economic recovery or its standings at the polls." That means "craft[ing] a policy that is neither so aggressive as to provoke a spiral into general war with all of its associated human and economic costs, nor so meek that North Korea is emboldened, the demands of justice for the dead and wounded sailors unmet, and the public's security concerns undiminished." They call this the "Goldilocks" approach, and say they haven't seen any proposals yet that qualify. They acknowledge some "military pinprick" may be "warranted," but point to numerous difficulties in selecting a target: "North Korea might welcome a military provocation in order to distract its people from the dreadful economy and repressive political situation."
  • Just How Hard That Is  The Guardian's Julian Borger points out that "Seoul refrained from accusations until a long, painstaking investigation was carried out, because it is well aware how limited its real options are--none of them very attractive." North Korea has threatened nuclear attack "if punitive action is taken," explains Borger, and while "the threat of annihilation is fairly par for the course for Pyongyang ... just because a threat is used frequently does not mean it can safely be ignored." He explains: "there is always the small chance that Kim Jong-il has descended into total madness or a struggle for power in Pyongyang has unleashed a strain of suicidal militarism." It's not clear, either, "what more the Security Council can do" if this problem winds up there--"North Korea is already under a tight sanctions regime."
  • The Game Plan: Restart Dialogue  Joel Wit is a former State Department official who, in 1998, "led a team of American government experts to an underground installation to determine if North Korea was cheating on a 1994 agreement to eliminate its nuclear weapons program." In short: he comes highly credentialed. He argues in The New York Times Tuesday that "the Cheonan sinking makes clear the dangers of playing a waiting game," and that the Obama administration needs "to shift its approach to North Korea," avoiding "a major escalation of tensions" by "seek[ing] condemnation by the United Nations Security Council, while expanding military defenses against the North and strengthening cooperation with Japan." Furthermore, he says, "instead of demanding new preconditions for talks--an apology for the Cheonan, for example--we should mount a gradual pragmatic effort to engage in new discussions, not as a reward for bad behavior or to talk for the sake of talking, but to make us more secure." He provides examples from the past to argue that "even limited success [in talks] is better than none at all."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.