Options are limited for retaliation against North

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Options are limited for retaliation against North

If the government probe concludes that a North Korean attack sunk the naval warship Cheonan on March 26, what options does Korea have to respond?

Kim Tae-young, the South’s defense minister, has said a torpedo attack was likely and that the government would consider military action if a North Korean attack is proven.

On Friday, Kim called the Cheonan sinking “a grave national security crisis,” implying North Korean involvement. Chung Mong-joon, chairman of the conservative ruling Grand National Party, said Friday that perhaps the time had come for Seoul “to make a critical decision.” Another conservative leader, Chairman Lee Hoi-chang of the Liberty Forward Party, even called for “forceful retaliation.”

In reality, there are few viable response options available, especially for military retaliation.

For one thing, the U.S. calls the shots on any military action, said Grand National Party legislator Kim Jang-soo, a former defense minister.

“Even if we decided to take military action, we’d be limited by the Combined Forces Commander’s right to hold back action under the Combined Delegated Authority,” Kim said. “That means if the United States was concerned about further raising tension on the peninsula, we may not be able to take any counteraction even if the Cheonan was actually struck [by North Korea].”

The Combined Forces Command, led by a U.S. general, reserves the right to deter war on the peninsula.

Yoo Ho-yeol, North Korean studies professor at Korea University in Seoul, said military action would be extremely risky.

“It just doesn’t help our own national interests at this point to take such steps,” he said. “We shouldn’t even be discussing the possibility of military action before we can prove North Korea was responsible. An external shock could have been caused by many different things, and accusing North Korea now would only worsen the inter-Korean ties.”

Another professor, who requested anonymity but called himself a conservative, said, “I think military action would be too dangerous, and I tend to agree with what the Lee administration has done to try to stay cautious in the investigation.”

In an April 8 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote that South Korea is facing “a lose-lose situation” because it can’t “punish” the North for its attack.

“If North Korean involvement was established, the Seoul government would face a hard choice: it would have to retaliate or be seen as spineless,” Lankov wrote.

“Full-scale war is out of the question. The military balance leaves almost no doubt that a war would be won by the South (with some American involvement), but the price of victory would be unacceptably high.”

On the record, government officials have refused to discuss what the South would do if North Korea is proven responsible, although Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said yesterday that speaking “hypothetically,” Korea could being the matter to the UN Security Council.

Aside from a military response, additional financial sanctions may not make a difference to North Korea, which is already under a series of arms trade embargoes and asset-freezing measures imposed by the United Nations Security Council, the European Union and individual countries.

The South could close down the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex and continue to suspend tourist visits to Mount Kumgang, squeezing the cash flow into the North.

But the Kaesong site is home to more than 100 South Korean companies and shutting it down may draw the ire of these companies, which use Kaesong as their bases to export goods to China and other parts of Asia.

Officials who asked for anonymity said the South could pursue United Nations sanctions as a response to a North Korean attack.

One high-ranking official recalled that in 1996, when North Korea sent spy submarines into South Korean waters, Seoul referred the incident to the United Nations Security Council. The Security Council drafted a presidential statement expressing “serious concern” over the submarine intrusion.

It was the first official statement by the Security Council on the situation on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953. But a presidential statement by the Security Council isn’t binding.

“If North Korea is proven responsible for the Cheonan sinking, then a Security Council presidential statement won’t be enough,” the high-ranking official said. “The Security Council will pursue something tougher, such as a [binding] resolution.”

Multiple government officials said they believe a North Korean attack on the Cheonan would be in violation of the UN Charter’s Chapter I, Article 2, Clause 4 that states, “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Such a violation would subject the North to Security Council sanctions.

A Foreign Ministry official said his and other ministries were studying the legal grounds for a binding resolution.

If North Korea is accused of attacking the Cheonan, it could once again raise the issue of the territorial waters off the west coast. The Cheonan went down near Baengnyeong Island, south of the Northern Limit Line, a de facto sea border, but the North refuses to recognize it because it was established by the U.S.-led UN forces. The North has frequently crossed the line and fired artillery south of it, and has even drawn up its own maritime border farther south. Baengnyeong falls on the northern side of North Korea’s version of the border.

And the UN Charter may prevent South Korea from taking retaliatory action against North Korea.

Lee Sang-hyun, director of the security studies program at the think tank Sejong Institute, said in a forum held in Seoul last week that without new provocations, the South wouldn’t be under any “imminent threat,” under which the UN Charter allows the use of force.

Lee cited previous North Korean attacks, including coastal artillery firing that destroyed a South Korean warship in 1967 and the Rangoon bombing in Burma in 1983 that killed three cabinet ministers. He said South Korea sought retaliation in each case but settled with applying diplomatic pressure.


By Yoo Jee-ho, Kang Chan-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

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