[Viewpoint] A time that tries our patience

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[Viewpoint] A time that tries our patience

We have been inundated with words since a Navy warship sunk near the sea border with North Korea two weeks ago. And now, the cascade of speculation and theories is just beginning to ebb.

Conservatives have been pointing the finger at North Korea, while liberals and the left wing vehemently rule out the possibility that the North played a role in the disaster.

President Lee Myung-bak has repeatedly warned against jumping to conclusions, and the U.S. government played down the possibility of North Korean involvement.

Politicians, however, have stood their ground and waged their own ideological war.

The moment of truth is coming. The real cause of the explosion that tore the Cheonan corvette in two will be revealed once investigators have hoisted the hull from the seabed and samples of the wreckage have undergone lab tests.

Until that’s completed, we need to sit patiently and think about what our actions will be once the results are in. President Lee, who cautioned against making hasty judgments on Wednesday, said the investigation must be thorough and based on objective and scientific facts, leaving the persons responsible for the tragedy no room to deny their fault. Only once the facts are established can the government take the necessary next steps.

No one knows how long the fact-finding process will take. To verify a North Korean attack, the investigative team must collect and compare any explosive pieces with mines and torpedoes North Korea has exported to Iran or other countries.

And even before that, we must salvage the sunken vessel, and volatile weather conditions near Baengnyeong Island could delay those efforts.

We must exercise patience. At a recent press conference, surviving crew members of the Cheonan gave vivid accounts of the tragic night, discounting the sprawling theories that pointed to an onboard explosion.

We should keep our opinions to ourselves until the joint investigative efforts by the government, military and civilians are completed.

The military, however, must clearly answer why the waters and the precinct remain free of debris if the ship sank from a mine or torpedo attack, and why reconnaissance aircraft took more than an hour to arrive at the scene of the accident.

We also must plan for every eventuality once the investigation ends.

If the blame lies with the military, the commanding officials will have to take responsibility. But what if North Korea is determined to be behind the attack? That will cast a new hue on the regional and international political scene, redefining inter-Korean relations and multilateral talks on denuclearization.

After repeatedly urging the public not to make hasty conjectures, President Lee sent an urgent memo to the defense minister, advising him not to say anything that suggested North Korean involvement during a parliamentary hearing. If the investigation uncovers definite evidence of a military attack by the North, President Lee likely won’t find it easy to come up with a concrete solution that can draw the support of the international community while appeasing anger at home.

We can hardly consider taking retaliatory aim at North Korea’s submarine base or the string of artillery guns along the sea border’s coast a month or more after the incident. And such a worst-case scenario is improbable, considering that the aftermath could lead to a renewed Korean conflict.

Economic sanctions are also out of the question. South Korea’s only remaining investment in the North is the Kaesong Industrial Complex. We have no leverage with which to pressure North Korea; all we can rely on are diplomatic measures.

President Lee’s remarks also suggested the option of filing suit against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council. If North Korea’s involvement is proven, South Korea can make a case for the Security Council to vote on a new declaration that would heap new restrictions on top of existing sanctions. The move could also prompt the United States to put North Korea back on the list of nations supporting international terrorism.

But North Korea’s response is predictable. As it has done before, it would thumb its nose at the international community. When pushed into a corner, the country would likely argue that the attack was an act of self-defense because the South Korean warship invaded North Korean waters. The North has not recognized the Northern Limit Line, the sea border in the Yellow Sea between the two Koreas, and insists that its territory extends south of Baengnyeong Island.

And it’s uncertain whether China would go along with the renewed Security Council action. All this means we must create a new strategy for North Korea and anticipate a change in the country’s power structure.

Regardless of the outcome of the Cheonan investigation, restoring the public’s trust in the military and the president is imperative. The military’s response to the disaster was seen as incoherent, exacerbating public anxiety. The defense minister ignored the president’s cautions against hastily insinuating that North Korea may have played a role, and finally got a written warning. The president took a beating for dealing poorly with risk management. Lawmakers have acted irresponsibly and immaturely. In short, the government and the military are faced with a crisis of confidence.

Public confidence is mired in waters as deep as those that cover the Cheonan. The president, legislators and military need to do all they can to salvage both.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie
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