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North Korea: Consequences

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COMMENTS

21 May 2010 14:11

The multinational investigation into the sinking of South Korea's Cheonan naval corvette, to which Australia contributed, has found the proverbial smoking gun with North Korea's fingerprints all over it. The question now is, how should South Korea, its security partners and North Korea's only ally, the People's Republic of China, react?

Unsurprisingly, most voices are calling on Seoul to continue to exercise restraint and not 'escalate' the situation (ie. to not respond militarily). While I am in general agreement with this call for cool heads, I worry that it could be misrepresenting the situation.

First of all, the DPRK's act of war has already escalated the situation at the cost of 46 South Korean navy officers' lives. Second, if the response to this act of aggression is simply an attempt to use the UN to impose more sanctions on the DPRK, with the PRC first running interference to limit the sanctions and then choosing not to impose them, this itself would be an act of escalation.

The same is true if the chosen response is a return to the moribund Six-Party Talks, a carrot Pyongyang has frequently dangled in front of the other participants before withdrawing it. Both of these weak responses would escalate the situation as they would send the message to Pyongyang that it got away with this brazen act with no real penalty.

I think four co-ordinated actions could help South Korea and its security partners find a response that doesn't escalate the situation directly but cannot be seen as weak passivity:

  1. The US Congress could re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, undoing the damage of the last year of the Bush Administration when it came to managing the DPRK.
  2. Push for sanctions in the UN on the DPRK that include a multinational monitoring panel reporting regularly on whether signatories are fulfilling their sanctions commitments.
  3. Joint US-ROK anti-submarine warfare exercises in and around South Korea that other US allies with the appropriate capabilities could join.
  4. Public pressure on the PRC to explain its response to the sinking of the Cheonan and the steps it has taken with its only ally, the DPRK.

Photo by Flickr user jcoterhals, used under a Creative Commons license.

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