On March 26, the South Korean corvette Cheonan -- a 1,200-ton warship with a crew of 104 -- exploded and sank off the South Korean island of Baengnyeong in the Yellow Sea near the western end of the 1953 North-South truce line. Forty-six of the crew were killed.
When the ship sank -- apparently a result of a North Korean torpedo attack -- it should have taken with it President Obama's efforts to revive the "Six Party Talks," the long-running effort to negotiate North Korea's cessation of its nuclear program. North Korea is a principal proliferator of advanced missiles and nuclear technology, selling to any customer with hard cash.
About two weeks after the ship sank, President Obama was apparently willing to overlook the incident. On April 13, he predicted that North Korea's choice of "isolation" from the international community would result in sufficient pressure to drive it back to the bargaining table. Obama predicted, "…we'll see a return to the six-party talks and ... we will see a change in behavior." That change is not in evidence.
The ship sank in roughly the same area in which North and South Korean ships exchanged fire in November 2009, an incident in which two North Koreans were killed. Was the Cheonan attacked by a North Korean ship -- a submarine or even, as one press report said, man-guided torpedoes in a suicide attack -- or was it destroyed in an accident?
First reports speculated that the ship hit an unrecovered mine left over from the Korean War. Since the ship's wreckage was recovered, examination of the damage has led to the conclusion that the explosion occurred outside the hull. And as one news report said Friday, pieces of aluminum which are not from the ship were found in or near the wreckage. Virtually all torpedoes are made with aluminum parts to reduce weight and resist oxidation.
North Korea has denied responsibility, but South Korea has determined that the ship was attacked, probably by a North Korean submarine. The South Korean Yonhap news agency reported Saturday that South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, in remarks pre-recorded for Sunday broadcast, blamed North Korea and demanded punitive action. The report quotes him as saying, "I believe a punitive action of any form should be taken against perpetrators who killed our soldiers. Those responsible for the deaths of the soldiers should pay the price."
A later Yonhap report, apparently seeking to tone down the rhetoric, quoted an unnamed government official saying that the aluminum debris might have come from the ship, which is quite possible. Combatant ships also have many aluminum parts. (The British destroyer Sheffield was sunk in the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina after Exocet missiles hit, setting its aluminum superstructure afire.)
If the North Koreans are responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, it is the bloodiest incident since the 1953 truce. But the cause of the sinking may never be proven. There's no team from "CSI Seoul" to prove a North Korean torpedo sank the ship. So what can South Korea do?
In this case, not much.
Any military response -- perhaps an air raid on a North Korean naval base -- risks disproportionate responses from nuclear-armed North Korea. Kim Jong-il's government is one of the most reckless and unpredictable in the world. It regularly provokes the U.S., South Korea and Japan to leverage concessions in the "Six Party Talks." The attack on the Cheonan could not have been made without Kim's personal approval.
Russia and China will bar further sanctions against the North Koreans in the UN, and the only other diplomatic route available to South Korea would be to boycott the Six Party Talks, which will put them at odds with Obama.
China is the key to North Korea, its client state. But China is also Obama's banker: its willingness to buy U.S. debt is a key to sustaining his spending spree and government expansion.
It is South Korea, not its belligerent northern cousin, that is isolated. The sinking of the Cheonan will only delay further U.S. concessions to North Korea to buy its re-entry into the Six-Party Talks. It will not prevent them.
South Korea's isolation, just like Israel's in the face of the threat of nuclear-arming Iran, is a direct result of Obama's foreign policy, his unwillingness to stand with our allies against existential threats.
As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is fond of saying, weakness is provocative. The kakistocracies that govern North Korea and Iran agree, and act.
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