[Viewpoint] No rush to counterattack the North

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[Viewpoint] No rush to counterattack the North

The notion that North Korea was evidently involved in the March 26 sinking of the Navy patrol ship Cheonan has become an article of faith among many conservatives here in Seoul.

At the same time, the current situation as it relates to the cause of the sinking of the ship has changed the thinking of some liberal-minded people, shaking their faith in an engagement strategy with the North that revolves around the Sunshine Policy.

Over time, North Korea has developed a reputation for backtracking and bellicosity. Conservatives and liberals alike believe that North Korea is taking the wrong approach. This time, at least, South Korea seems to have won the opening gambit of the probe, which has been called a political chess game.

Nevertheless, the absence of tangible evidence - what I like to call the “Rosetta Stone” of the incident - poses an unwelcome question going to the heart of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s resolute and principled counteraction protocol: Could Seoul legally retaliate against Pyongyang?

Yet none of the South Korean officials seem to think that the country can act alone on this front.

While the South Korean Ministry of Defense, still concerned with the paucity of valuable evidence from the broken ship, struggles to search for the cause of the external explosion, no one seems to be afraid of pointing the finger at North Korea.

This is true even though Pyongyang already denied it had anything to do with the sinking, to say nothing about the Defense Ministry’s apparent powerlessness to stop such a clandestine operation and its clueless crisis management.

Still, President Lee warned that the tragic incident should not be interpreted in a political light.

In the eyes of some radical right-wingers who count Lee as “one of us” and are eager to press the administration hard on any ties between the incident and North Korean submarines, the conservative government appears to be uncommonly sensitive to the idea that the ship was part of a paramilitary attack.

Some conservatives point out that the North Korean regime’s loyalists are like deluded Japanese soldiers who mistakenly fought after the defeat of Japan in 1945, saying that “they are just final remnants of a failed regime.”

That said, North Korea has already become like a lightning rod on the roof of the highest building. As if on cue, some “influential” local newspapers - assuming that North Korea might launch torpedoes at a South Korean ship, basing their premise on the belief that the communist regime in Pyongyang is a rogue state that has preferred war to peace - have quickly floated suggestions in their editorial and opinion sections that the Blue House should move into a war stance now.

The idea is that the administration could gain conservative support by standing up to Kim Jong-il’s regime, which has yet to abandon its ambition of obtaining nuclear weapons.

The suggestion initially raised some eyebrows on the political left.

On the political right, many radicals who have made a sport of predicting the poverty-stricken regime’s collapse apparently are conjuring up images of a special operation unit inside the Defense Ministry full of James Bond-like agents.

In reality, however, there doesn’t seem to be much Seoul can do independently related to the cause of the explosion.

It is a sad secret that without being able to see satellite photos - which equate to the mother lode of information on North Korean military locations - offered by U.S. military authorities, we are not able to reach any solid and sound conclusions with regard to the whereabouts of North Korean submarines.

It therefore goes without saying that to South Korea, the U.S. is like someone who has your back during a knife fight. The high-value photos are available only on a “need-to-know” basis, though, with the U.S. government stipulating that the pictures must not be published in any fashion.

So without access to hard evidence of North Korea’s involvement, I find it inappropriate to assert that the Lee administration should rush to counterattack the communist regime. At the same time, bellicose rhetoric cannot simply end an invisible war.

Of course, some people can selectively interpret or misinterpret the cause of the eye-opening Cheonan affair with the ulterior motive of flag-waving by claiming that the naval tragedy was associated with the diabolic Kim Jong-il regime in North Korea, even if they do not all want to go that route.

So it’s wise - and it’s good gamesmanship - that the president carefully avoided pinning the blame on the regime in Pyongyang.

For some time now, there has been growing sentiment among the people that the first responsibility of the Defense Ministry is to offer the public a more transparent and substantial explanation for the sinking of the ship backed by solid evidence.

South Korea’s official explanation of the cause could represent another beginning to the debate over the incident if it fails to back up its claims with scientific evidence untainted by politics or partisan ambition, in consideration of the scheduled local elections on June 2. From the perspective of Lee and his acolytes, the results of the June elections are a political litmus test of “continuity-of-government” exercises.

All in all, the burning question at the moment is how to protect the country from a ghost enemy as well as how to bring the hidden truth behind the mind-boggling blast into the light. The rest is piffle.

*The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation.

Lee Byong-chul
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