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Opinion: How to approach North Korea

Doing nothing is not the answer if Pyongyang is found guilty of blowing up South Korea's patrol ship.

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.