[Viewpoint] Harming the Cheonan was a blunder

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[Viewpoint] Harming the Cheonan was a blunder

President Lee Myung-bak is prudent and weighs his words carefully. Officially, the president and the government refrain from making any comment on the cause of the Cheonan sinking. But most Koreans have already decided that the perpetrator of the blast that took the lives of 46 sailors of the naval corvette Cheonan was North Korea.

The president has so far avoided implicating North Korea in connection with the tragedy and wants the cabinet, especially the Defense Ministry, to follow suit. On April 5, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young mentioned a torpedo attack as the most likely cause of the sinking at a parliamentary hearing. But he took back his words later because a memo from the Blue House asked him not to mention the cause of the sinking. However, most Koreans say that the barbaric attack must be condemned, and they also know that a military option is out of the question.

The president is right. We should, first of all, concentrate all our efforts on finding material evidence of the cause of the explosion. And the participation of experts from the United States, Australia and Sweden in the joint investigation will give added credence to the findings. But the problem is that the North will not recognize, in any case, the evidence that the team will produce after going through complicated scientific verification procedures that can take a painstakingly long time.

What can be done should be done without hesitation. The joint investigation team announced an interim conclusion that an outside shock was the cause of the sinking and that the blast could have been caused by a torpedo or sea mines. Above all, the salvaged wreckage of the broken ship itself is hard evidence of a terror attack. President Lee must say that the cause of the blast was a terrorist attack and condemn strongly the perpetrators of the crime. Whether it is North Korea or not, we must show firm determination that we will find the perpetrators and punish them. In addition, to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents, we must build up our naval forces, strengthen anti-submarine operation capability and reinforce the defense posture along the Northern Limit Line by establishing a strong naval base in the Gimpo-Ganghwa area.

North Korea had perpetrated numerous terrorist activities in the past, including the hijacking and bombing of civilian airliners, the kidnapping of South Korean fishermen in international waters, armed raids and infiltrations, assassination attempts on the lives of presidents and more. Every time the North has carried out a clandestine mission, it flatly denied its involvement, claiming it was a self-fabricated scenario of the South. Recently, it is reported that the North has been training maritime snipers and human-torpedoes, who are trained in firing torpedoes at close range from submersible boats and laying mines.

If the North Korean military is not the perpetrator of the blast, it should still be investigated thoroughly. But, if the North actually carried out a terrorist attack, it made a big mistake. As President Lee’s North Korea policy, which is primarily based on pragmatism and reciprocity, did not make progress in the past two years due to the nuclear issue, South Koreans who favored the Sunshine Policy under former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun complained that President Lee’s inflexible inter-Korean policy hardened relations with Pyongyang. At the news of the Cheonan blast, however, public attitudes have changed. They suddenly realized the stern reality that South Korea confronts a heavily armed North Korea only 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Seoul.

Nuclear weapons and terrorism are important sources of power for Kim Jong-il. In October 2008, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It wanted to open the way for phase three of nuclear negotiations, the full dismantlement of Yongbyon. It hoped to cap the outgoing president’s record with a diplomatic trophy for settling the North Korean nuclear issue. However, North Korea suspended dismantlement of Yongbyon in December 2008, before the end of President Bush’s term. The North’s removal from the list was wasted.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last June that the Obama administration would consider reinstating North Korea on the list if there is evidence that it supported international terrorism. There were reports that North Korea recently provided arms and training to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, two groups on the U.S. list of international terrorist groups. If it is confirmed that North Korean terrorists blew up the Navy ship, the United States should reinstate North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The success of an international effort to settle the incident through diplomatic means depends primarily on China. It is common knowledge that North Korea relies heavily on China militarily and economically.

Ultimately, China should play the role of persuading the North and making it apologize for the attack, promise not to repeat it and return to the suspended six-party talks. China should not make any concession either on the pretext of inducing Pyongyang to the six-party talks to avoid the mistakes made by the Bush administration.

*The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

By Park Sung-soo
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