[Viewpoint] In desperate need of an upgrade

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[Viewpoint] In desperate need of an upgrade

Voters in Gangwon Province - which is usually the most sensitive to the winds blowing from neighboring North Korea - elected a left-wing liberal candidate as their new governor amid heightened tension in inter-Korean relations. This is significant. Some political pundits say the conservative Grand National Party fared poorly in the June 2 local elections because the North Korea factor no longer has a winning effect on voters. If that’s true, the ruling party’s defeat was predestined regardless of the North Korean attack on a Naval warship off the western coast.

The so-called North Korean wind may have swayed some senior conservative voters, but it caused the opposite effect among young voters. The options presented by the government, ruling party and conservative bodies in response to the Cheonan’s sinking were extreme, drumming up fears that a war could be brewing. Senior defense strategists talked of a precision missile attack against the North Korean submarine base while conservatives pressed for stern action against the North, causing concern among the general public. The opposition party was quick to read voters’ minds and succeeded in simplifying the election as pro-war versus pro-peace.

The calls for strong action against North Korea remain strong. The president also remains firm on the matter. But what the authorities mean by tough action and how they plan to punish North Korea for its unwarranted attack remain unclear. Many have tried to draw a parallel between the Cheonan incident and the axe murder in Panmunjom in August 1976, when North Korean soldiers killed two American officers. They claim that only when the United States looked poised to take military action did South Koreans argue for similar action to teach North Korea a lesson.

Brinkmanship has long been favored by strategists. But if U.S. forces do attack North Korea and the latter retaliates, it will not be the United States, but our land that turns into a war zone. If the skirmish becomes an all-out war, North Korea won’t be able to last more than three months. Still, the war will take many lives and devastate the economy on both sides of the border. Policy makers must come up with wise steps to move North Korea in our direction, without costing valuable losses on our side.

Seoul has failed to marshal support from Beijing amid the international condemnation of North Korea. Without China’s support, no new actions from the United Nations Security Council - whether it be enhanced sanctions or rhetorical condemnation - will be possible. Seoul and Washington may have agreed to take comfort in a hard-worded resolution from the Security Council condemning North Korea’s actions and undermining peace. But that, too, may not be easy to achieve without Beijing’s endorsement.

The highly publicized joint Korea-U.S. military exercise in the Yellow Sea may be scaled down or canceled, in part so as not to upset China. The plan to drop leaflets and broadcast propaganda near the inter-Korean border as part of a psychological warfare campaign has also been put off. Military action has been ruled out from the beginning. What options do we have left?

No wonder we are hearing comments that we are too weak on North Korea. But no matter how much we push the government, it cannot go beyond the Chinese wall, and we are left with few options. When against a dead end, we need to make realistic choices in our North Korea policy.

First of all, we must fix the stable, even if the horse has already bolted out. North Korea will be tempted to resort to provocation again to solidify military control as a result of its inner problems. Our military forces must reinforce their capacity and surveillance so that nothing passes by their radar. They must also brace for the unexpected, including a possible cyber attack from the North.

The Board of Audit and Inspection’s inquest into the sinking of the Cheonan suggests that fixing the military will not be enough to fend off predators. Senior Navy commanders in charge of the Yellow Sea defense were fast asleep, pushing aside a report submitted a few days prior to the Cheonan sinking that warned of the possibility of a North Korean submarine attack. They have been negligent in their duty. They were like the house cat too lazy to catch the rat running around before its eyes.

Reinforcing the hardware is essential, but it will be of no use if it isn’t accompanied by a software upgrade, as well as serious introspection and a new resolution from the military leadership.

The president hit the nail on the head when he said inter-Korean relations cannot be the same before and after the Cheonan disaster. We must come up with a new vision for our North Korea policy. Part of this vision should involve revamping and reinforcing our defense posture. It is high time we do away with the practice of waiting idly on the sidelines for North Korea to break up from the inside.

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

by Kim Young-hie
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