Opinion: How to approach North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea may soon release the findings of an investigation into the sinking of the ROKS Ch’onan, a 1,200-tonne coastal patrol ship, which on March 26 was blown in half by an external explosion.

Many people have already blamed North Korea for the attack that killed 46 people near the disputed inter-Korean maritime boundary. They are probably right.

The North Korean navy was likely seeking revenge after one of its ships suffered casualties and heavy damage in a clash with the South last November. Furthermore, Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third son and rumored heir to the Kim family dynasty, could be credited with having planned or approved the attack in order to shore up his credentials with the military.

If suspicions are proven correct, there are few good policy options available for a response. There is no sense in South Korea retaliating with military force since the costs far outweigh the possible benefits. Even posturing to use force rattles markets, and, despite public outrage, most South Koreans are unwilling to bear the costs of escalation and the risk of an all-out war.

The absence of good policy options, however, does not mean Seoul and the international community can or should ignore this incident. Doing nothing sends the wrong signal to Pyongyang, so the South Korean government is now exploring possible reactions.

Many conservatives believe Seoul should close down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the inter-Korean project in the North where about 100 firms from the South employ around 40,000 North Korean workers. However, this option is unattractive, because North Korea could restrict passage across the Military Demarcation Line and essentially hold about 1,000 South Koreans working there as hostages.

There is also support for prohibiting North Korean ships from transiting through the Cheju Strait, but this would violate a 2004 inter-Korean maritime pact and would result in Pyongyang nullifying the whole agreement, including stipulations for humanitarian cooperation in the case of maritime accidents. Pyongyang could also counter by denying access to North Korean airspace and thus increase flight times and fuel costs on international routes for South Korea’s commercial airlines.

Furthermore, denying access to the strait would actually make it harder for the South to search for contraband on North Korean ships passing the South Korean southern coast. It would be wiser for Seoul to remain committed to the inter-Korean maritime agreement, and reiterate that it will fulfill its commitments to intercept illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and prohibit North Korean conventional arms exports.

Given South Korea’s obvious constraints, if North Korea is found guilty of the sinking, Seoul and its friends and allies have to take a measured approach.

First, the evidence should be reported to the U.N. Security Council since this would be a threat to peace and stability in the region. There is little room for additional sanctions, and arguably, the incident could be considered an act of war in a disputed area where two adversaries are only bound by the 1953 Korean War Armistice. Nevertheless, reporting the evidence to the Security Council provides an opportunity to remind all member states of their obligations to implement sanctions against North Korea.

The U.N. sanctions regime targets WMD and missile-related transactions as well relevant entities, individuals and their assets. Security Council sanctions also ban North Korean imports of luxury goods, which are used by the regime to buy loyalty from supporters. However, implementation has been sporadic, and Chinese compliance is crucial if sanctions are to effectively pressure the leadership. The international community should remind China of its obligation to enforce the luxury goods embargo.

Second, monitoring and deterrence should be strengthened to prevent a recurrence. South Korea is already taking steps in this direction, and the international community should lend its support.

The November 2009 sea clash was another indication that the [North] Korean People’s Army cannot compete with the South in the conventional realm. The bad news is that Pyongyang will rely more and more on the advantages it does have, including its WMD arsenal, to maintain security. This underscores the urgency to reconvening the Six-Party Talks, however slim the possibility of denuclearization.

Finally, the United States and South Korea should delay the termination of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) and the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the United Nations Command to the South Korean military, which is scheduled for April 2012. An unprovoked maritime attack, no progress on denuclearization, the complete absence of any confidence-building measures and succession looming in the North mean there is too much uncertainty to try restructuring the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which has proven to be a robust deterrent for almost 57 years.

Daniel A. Pinkston is North East Asia Deputy Project Director of the International Crisis Group.