[Viewpoint] Why don’t we realize we’re at war?

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[Viewpoint] Why don’t we realize we’re at war?

The halved Cheonan naval corvette was lifted from the seabed one month after it was sunk by an explosion while patrolling near the maritime border with North Korea. Through the last month, we learned that it was not an internal blast, a collision with a reef, or metal fatigue that sank the 1,200-ton ship. Obviously, it was deliberately attacked. Determining who perpetrated such an attack will take months, even years. It is practically impossible to comb murky waters 50 meters deep in search of fragments of explosives sunk in the seabed. Even if we recover some pieces, we will have to match them with the original weaponry makers.

The Cheonan case may never be solved. We declared we will nail the offender with decisive evidence but we will be on weak ground if we fail to come up with material evidence. Even if we produce evidence, the suspect can bluntly deny our accusation. There is no international organization that can deliver a fair trial in a case like this. We may have put ourselves in a zugzwang, with nothing but disadvantageous moves at our disposal.

When our Navy fired at a suspicious movement at sea following the tragedy, the president frowned and questioned if the move had not been an “overreaction.” He stopped the defense minister in parliament from hinting at a torpedo attack by sending a memo. The Blue House defended North Korea from the beginning. Did it really believe in North Korea’s innocence? If not, what took the president so long to come around to admitting North Korea’s involvement? Was it prudence or fear? Does the government’s pledge of stern action after finding evidence include military action, or even declaration of a war? If it fails to find evidence, then what? Regardless of whether we come up with physical evidence or not, we have lost our chance to take military action.

Just hours after the massive terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke to his nation to assure it that the search was under way for the perpetrators, and that he had mobilized “the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and bring them to justice.” Ten days later he addressed a joint session of Congress to declare a “War on Terror,” with the promise that “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

We too should have articulated assuring words. We should have promised ourselves and others that we would seek justice after the attack against us. We should have declared our rights within internationally authorized power to defend our nation. It is the only way to safeguard a nation’s dignity.

The role of China will be crucial from now on. North Korea is already under various sanctions by the United Nations Security Council because of its nuclear ambitions. Without China’s cooperation, further economic sanctions by the Security Council will come to nothing. If China continues to finance North Korea, the regime will continue to survive. We should be able to say: “We will hunt down the offender no matter how long it takes to protect our right to defend our country. Any country harboring and helping North Korea is also undermining our right to defense.” Such a declaration would pressure China to join international efforts to corner North Korea.

But it is not too late to fix the fundamentals. We must overhaul our unification policy first. One month after the tragic incident, North Korea even declared it will seize our assets at the Mount Kumgang park. Yet our president a couple of days ago said in a National Unification Advisory Council meeting that making North Korea run its economy ably is more important than unification. Now the victim is apprehensive while the offender is defiant.

The ideological war may be over, but the conflict between the two Koreas goes on. North Koreans may be starving, but they still have weapons that can devastate our land. At such a point, we have more urgent tasks than building up our maritime and space power. These are overly ambitious and vain projects pursued by previous governments under the illusion we are in peacetime. It’s time to focus our resources on deterring and defending ourselves from North Korea’s terror attacks. Diplomacy also should change its focus from business to security. We must declare to the international community that we cannot tolerate a terrorist state.

We wept with the families hugging the coffins of the young sailors salvaged from the sea, and raged at the sight of the wreckage. But we cannot end with grief and anger. The international community is watching our next move. Seeing us in a dither, would they think us a peace-loving country or a cowardly and indecisive one? If we, as victims, vacillate, who will come to our aid? Will the United States or China? The response of the world depends on our next move. Times like this demand not teary and emotional leadership, but stern resolution, because peace does not come by words alone. It is made and built with our hands.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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