[Viewpoint] The nightmare this time aroundWe now await the dreaded rude awakening to the reality in which we live. What sank a naval ship with young sailors returning from a routine patrol near the disputed sea border with North Korea one evening is likely to be a reality the government and military authorities wanted to avoid most fervently. Although the probe is still proceeding, the joint civilian, military and foreign investigation team has tentatively reached a conclusion that a so-called bubble jet, created by a blast of a torpedo detonated from a near distance, ruptured and sank the ship.
Circumstantial evidence pointed to a mine or torpedo attack, but the government and military authorities have prayed to be wrong. But that explanation is most probable. Someone has set off an explosive, killing sons and husbands on the ship, and painting the entire nation into a corner.
The country’s security has been violated and is now in not much better shape than the halved wreckage of the corvette Cheonan. Now we confront the difficult and baffling questions: Who did it and why? If a torpedo was fired within two kilometers (1.24 miles) of the ship, it means a submarine or semi-submersible snuck into Korean waters. Submarines cruising the waters near the Korean Peninsula can belong to Japan, China, the United States or Russia. But they undoubtedly would notify the country’s computerized naval command, Korea Naval Tactical Data System, and moreover have no reasons to attack a South Korean naval ship. What would they gain by provoking South Korea, which has a relationship with every one of the four powers?
That leaves us with one suspect: North Korea. No one wants to say it out loud. We told ourselves to be patient and cool, not to jump to conclusions as there is no definitive evidence implicating the North. But if we find one little piece of evidence pointing definitely at North Korea, the rage we have forcibly suppressed will gush forth.
The disbelief and anger would be different from our response to various North Korean provocations in the past, ranging from the commandos’ attempt to assassinate President Park Chung Hee in January 1968 and the deadly skirmishes near the maritime border in 1999. Fear replaced frustration and anxiety among the general public as they watched the rescue team comb through the waters in search of missing sailors, and then saw the wrecked stern of the ship hoisted from the sea, as suspicion of North Korean involvement grew. The war generation may have found themselves woken up by nightmares.
The government has its back in a corner as it tries to deal with the multiple layers of complex emotions triggered by the Cheonan crisis. A government still technically at war with another state must provide the best of security, but its response to this grave blow to its security has been disheartening. A naval ship has been downed by an enemy state, but the government is only coming to grips with this reality 20 days after the attack. How much longer does it need to secure the evidence? If the torpedo carried no identifying marks or the attacker used a weapon from another country, there is no way to pin down the offender even if we find pieces of weaponry.
Even after we obtain evidence, what next? How will the government appease a public muddled with frustration, fear and disappointment and come up with the “resolute action” repeatedly promised by the president? What radical and decisive remedy is there to relieve the public from its current extreme mental trauma? Even the ruling Grand National Party head Chung Mong-joon called for the government to make a critical decision. But what options are there? Wiping out a submarine base in the North is an idea tossed over a drinking table. Anyway, it is too late. If we wanted a war, we should have gunned down the submarine on the run.
Diplomatic action is, of course, the right move. But North Korea is virtually immune against trade sanctions and punishment by the United Nations Security Council. Even if we make a case against the North in international court, what can the impoverished country provide us with? We will only push the state to the edge and encourage it to be even more reliant for survival on its missiles and nuclear weapons. We stare at the conundrum with no definite answer and with a myriad of frustrations.
We devoted April to trying to decipher the mystery behind the Cheonan tragedy. And if North Korea is confirmed to be behind it, we will likely spend May in angry outbursts and protests against it. We cannot forget the young, valuable lives sacrificed without doing anything, and we cannot let the security loopholes continue to gape. The people are repressing their anger and muting an outcry for a major fix in the military and government over their poor response to crisis. An explosion in the west coastal waters triggered urgent alarm bells on our lax security awareness. But what we fear more is that the provocation this time is aggravating enough to lead to war.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Song Ho-keun