[Viewpoint] Drawing a line in the sea

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[Viewpoint] Drawing a line in the sea

We have now bade our last farewell to the 46 sailors lost in the prime of their lives. No collective grief, lofty postmortem honors or words of glory in funeral eulogies can compensate for the unjust deaths of these young soldiers and the resulting traumatic losses to their families.

These young men could not have imagined that the defensive lines on the sea border with North Korea could be so easily violated as they dutifully followed orders to patrol the waters. Nor could they have imagined that the state-of-the-art hydroacoustic device would fail to catch the sound waves of an approaching submarine or torpedo. They had faith in their military command. Moreover, they had faith in the Republic of Korea.

Yet their trust was betrayed. The Yellow Sea border is full of fissures. The display of disarray by commanding officers upon learning of the explosion and the subsequent flaws in reporting procedures raise serious doubts about the military command system of a country technically at war with one of the most hostile states on the planet.

That is why we feel so ashamed after the deaths of the 46 sailors. We cannot shake off the woeful cries from family members of the fallen that they would have felt better if their sons were lost in action.

The president and military commanders are all guilty of neglect and unpreparedness. The president - who has no military experience - the defense minister and the chairman of the joint chiefs - both from the Army - were oblivious and uninterested in the fact that naval fleets remain understaffed and underdeveloped.

They paid little attention to calls for necessary upgrades to our naval forces, which lag in this respect well behind the other miliary branches. Leaders trumpeted the importance of the naval defense of the Yellow Sea, which has been the site of several deadly skirmishes. Yet it’s not even clear if they have a detailed map of the sea.

The 46 sailors are gone, but the country must stand firm. We have laid them to rest and must now return to everyday life. We have a heavy and grave task ahead of us in the aftermath of the Cheonan tragedy.

The past month was defined by sorrowful sounds coming from bugles, a cascade of anti-Communist conservative rhetoric and muffled rebuttals from pro-North Korean forces, leaving little room for sensible and rational judgment.

President Lee Myung-bak, who maintained a voice of reason by advising against drawing hasty conclusions shortly after the ship sunk, gradually was swept up in a wave of hawkish conservative calls. The hawks demanded strong action, including military retaliation.

But the president must be clear-headed, drawing the line on what our country is capable of doing in response and what it is not. Without objective evidence pointing to North Korea as the orchestrator of the operation to shoot down the Cheonan corvette, the government cannot take the case to the United Nations Security Council.

Nobody knows if we can secure material evidence. We must face reality. We cannot carry out physical retaliation on North Korea. The United States and China certainly won’t agree to such a move. And we have no military clout to brave U.S. opposition and strike North Korea on our own.

No matter how many times we chair a G-20 Summit, the fact that South Korea remains tied to a war zone is undeniable. Requesting that China play a sincere role in pressuring North Korea via a summit meeting with President Hu Jintao and Korea-China-Japan summit talks in May on Jeju Island is our only diplomatic hope.

President Lee should be emboldened, if necessary, by hawkish sentiment at home to demand that China take a more prominent role, as the country is partly to be blamed for the rogue and belligerent state of North Korea.

Considering the circumstantial evidence we’ve uncovered to date, the South may not need concrete evidence to suspect North Korea’s involvement in the sinking of the ship. But it is a different world outside Korea.

Unfortunately, the disaster might be muted by efforts by the U.S. and China to furtively bring North Korea back to six-party talks. And China, after all, is profiting economically from the tense inter-Korean relations.

The U.S. is actively involved in hunting for evidence of mine and torpedo attacks to learn whether North Korea has the capacity to carry out acts of terrorism at sea and export such capabilities to Iran and other countries. The United States is also determining whether it needs to reassess its naval strategies in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Herein lies a conflict of interest between Korea and the U.S.

Our options are frustratingly limited, but President Lee must draw a firm line on this issue. Currently, South-North relations are deadlocked. We simply have no leverage against North Korea.

The Lee administration must seriously contemplate how it will address nuclear and other North Korean affairs regardless of whether or not it comes up with concrete evidence that Pyongyang was involved. The Cheonan crisis is not only an inter-Korean issue, but a complicated geopolitical one as well.

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

By Kim Young-hie
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