Usual tension turns perilous

Northeast Asia has entered a tense and dangerous period. The South Korean government’s conclusion that North Korea was responsible for the sinking of one of its navy vessels demands a response. Neither Seoul nor any government can afford to ignore such blatant aggression. But Pyongyang has said any action could lead to “all-out war.” Cautious and firm diplomacy is demanded as well as a strong and unanimous response from all nations in the region. Anything less will encourage more reckless and dangerous behavior.

The South Korean Navy ship Cheonan, a 1,200-ton corvette, sank March 26 while on antisubmarine warfare patrol in South Korean waters near the Northern Limit Line, a sea border disputed by North Korea. The ship was hit by an underwater explosion, broke in two and quickly sank in 45-meter-deep waters; 46 members of its 104-man crew were lost. The ship was ultimately salvaged, but another life was lost during the rescue operations.

Speculation immediately centered on North Korea. Pyongyang denied any involvement. To its credit, the government of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak did not succumb to the emotional desire to react hastily. It assembled a team of international experts from South Korea, Britain, Australia, Sweden and the United States. It concluded Thursday that there was “no other plausible explanation” than a North Korean attack: “The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine.”

That evidence includes the condition of the sunken ship. The hull was bent upward, which is consistent with how such a structure would look if a torpedo had exploded close to it. Moreover, near the recovery site, salvage teams found fragments of a torpedo, including a propulsion motor, propellers and a steering section. They matched the specifications that North Korea provided in sales brochures for weapons it exports. A handwritten marking on one part matched a marking found on a North Korean torpedo obtained by South Korea several years ago.

It was also discovered that several “minisubmarines” and one mother ship had left a North Korean naval base a few days before the attack and returned a couple of days afterward. South Korean investigations “confirmed that all submarines from neighboring countries were either in or near their respective home bases at the time of the incident.”

In denying any responsibility for the incident, North Korea immediately called South Korea’s conclusion a “fabrication” and threatened to respond to sanctions with “strong measures, including a full-scale war.” Observers note that the warning came from the National Defense Commission, which rarely makes public pronouncements. The source suggested that Pyongyang’s threats may not be its usual inflammatory rhetoric.

It is not hard to believe that North Korea is involved. Pyongyang was responsible for the 1987 bombing of a South Korean commercial jet that killed 115 people. It also planted a bomb in Burma in 1983 in an attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan. It “failed” only because Chun was caught in traffic; 17 of his Cabinet ministers died. Japan knows well North Korea’s indifference to the suffering it causes. We cannot know why the country north of the 38th parallel acted as it did; it remains as opaque as ever. One thing is certain: The sinking of a naval ship is an act of war that cannot go unpunished.

President Lee knows as much. He has been purposely marshaling evidence to make the case against Pyongyang airtight. His government has been working with allies and neighbors to build a consensus in favor of action — not necessarily military action. Even a limited military engagement could escalate and kill thousands of people. The mere prospect of conflict could wreak havoc on the South Korean economy.

Instead, Seoul is rallying support for a new round of sanctions against North Korea. Japan and the U.S. are onboard. Key to the success of any sanctions regime, as always, is China, which is proving hard to convince of Pyongyang’s culpability. China is not indifferent to North Korean misbehavior, but it has other concerns. First, it wants to keep a sympathetic government on its border as well as a buffer zone between itself and South Korea. Second, there is fear that clamping down on Pyongyang will force it into a corner and provoke more dangerous behavior.

China prizes stability above all else when dealing with its neighbors. For the sake of stability, then, the international coalition should press Beijing to join it in demanding accountability from Pyongyang. It is hard to imagine anything that is potentially more destabilizing than an attack on a foreign naval vessel. Any indication that China will shield North Korea from responsibility for its acts will only encourage similar behavior in the future. This realization — along with the evidence from the investigation — should spur China.

A United Nations-sponsored investigation should follow; if it reaches the same conclusion as South Korea’s report, then tough sanctions are mandated. A failure to take those steps would not only undermine security in Northeast Asia, but it would damage, perhaps fatally, confidence in international institutions designed to keep the peace.