Posted : 2010-05-04 15:53
Updated : 2010-05-04 15:53

Choosing appropriate response

By Ralph A. Cossa

As it becomes more and more obvious that the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan was sunk on March 26 by a North Korean torpedo, more and more voices are calling for cooler heads to prevail when considering an appropriate response to what, if confirmed, would have been a clear act of war.

I say ``if confirmed,'' since the ROK government has been very careful not to jump to any official conclusion without a thorough investigation. This is as it should be but still begs the question ``what should the ROK (and the U.S.) do, if a deliberate torpedo attack is conclusively proven to be the cause?''

I pride myself as being a member of the ``cooler heads'' club, but this does not mean doing nothing; nor does it mean ruling out in advance ― as many seem inclined to do ― a number of different military responses.

Again, to belabor the point, the first step is to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the sinking was the result of a deliberate hostile action. This will require maximum transparency in analyzing the evidence which is currently being obtained.

Given that 80 percent of ROK citizens believe Pyongyang was responsible, it will be equally important ― and perhaps more difficult ― for the Lee Myung-bak government to convincingly demonstrate that such a conclusion cannot be reached.

If the evidence of North Korean hostile action is persuasive ― it will likely never be absolute ― there must be a firm response. The most appropriate ― but not the only ― vehicle for channeling this response is the U.N. Security Council.

The Seoul government must make its case before the UNSC. Pyongyang should then be provided an opportunity to explain its action and to identify and appropriately punish the guilty parties if it proves to be a rogue element. An official apology and reparations would also be in order.

If Pyongyang refuses or if current rumors are proven true ― there are reports that the North Korean military officer in charge has been promoted and that other North Korean officials are bragging having taken ``great revenge on the enemies'' ― then additional sanctions (the UNSC's traditional weapon of choice) will not be enough.

Here is what ought to be done. The UNSC should mandate, in addition to increased sanctions (and stricter enforcement of those already on the books), that all North Korean submarines and torpedo boats are hereby restricted to port until further notice, with the ban subject to semi-annual review, based on North Korean behavior.

Any that are determined to be underway should be deemed as legitimate targets for prosecution and destruction by the Seoul-based United Nations Command and ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC).

The CFC should further announce that it reserves the right to ``render inoperable'' any North Korean naval facility that bases the offending naval units. If, as is all too likely, the UNSC refuses to take such firm action, then the CFC should unilaterally take this position and seek broader international endorsement, especially from other members of the armistice committee.

Many in Seoul are now arguing that this incident underscores the wisdom of delaying or cancelling outright the planned transfer of operational control (OPCON) of ROK forces in wartime from the U.S. (under the then to be dissolved CFC) to ROK command in 2012.

Perhaps! But at a minimum, we should reconsider ending the CFC. There should be no question left in Pyongyang's mind about the joint ROK/U.S. commitment to fight together. Keeping the CFC intact, regardless of who has OPCON, sends that message.

Pyongyang is sure to brand such actions ``an act of war,'' as they have similarly declared any number of actions. But Pyongyang is not suicidal; it fully understands the risk of escalation and who would be the ultimate loser.

It has been North Korea's belief that there will be no meaningful consequences, a belief unfortunately reinforced by history, which emboldens its actions. This mindset needs to be corrected.

Some will argue that such a response will undermine the prospects for a resumption of six-party talks aimed at Korean Peninsula denuclearization. Actually the reverse is true. It would be politically impossible for Seoul (and inappropriate and unwise for Washington) to return to such a dialogue until the Cheonan matter is settled.

The ball is currently in Seoul's court. It must make the case and then take the lead in crafting an appropriate response. The U.S., through the CFC, must be seen as being in lock step with its South Korean ally; Washington should not be seen as trying to hold back or water down any response endorsed by the South Korean government and people. To do so will call the U.S. commitment, not only to the Republic of Korea but also to its other security allies, into question.

Assuming that Pyongyang is demonstrated to be culpable, turning the other cheek or a gentle slap on the wrist is sure to result in continued North Korean acts of aggression.

A firm but measured response along the lines suggested above seems the best way of ending the cycle of aggression and persuading Pyongyang that the international community is finally serious about putting an end to its unacceptable behavior.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS (, a Honolulu-based nonprofit foreign policy research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He can be reached at The views expressed in the above article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times.
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