The UN Security Council has plenty of reasons to respond forcefully to North Korea for its sinking of a South Korean naval ship. But one reason stands out: The South Koreans themselves need to know where the world stands on North Korea’s rising belligerency.
For a people who are on the front lines of a still-hot remnant of the cold war, South Koreans have become too complacent in recent years about the North Korean threat, especially its apparent possession of atomic weapons. Violent provocations, such as the March 26 torpedoing of the Cheonan that left 46 sailors dead, can be quickly forgotten in a country that’s mainly focused on remaining an export giant.
The old desire of South Koreans to reunite the two halves of the peninsula began to melt away in the 1990s after they saw the high cost that former West Germany paid to absorb the former East Germany. Also adding to their nonchalance has been the so-called “sunshine” diplomacy” of previous presidents, and the cozying up to North Korea with trade, aid, and tourism in hopes of stabilizing its economy and preventing it from a collapse.
This rising indifference in the South is just the trend that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has long sought. He hopes to weaken the South’s resolve as one way to eventually break its military alliance with the United States.
That strategy hit a bump, however, when a conservative businessman, Lee Myung-bak, was elected president of South Korea in 2007. Mr. Lee began to reverse the “sunshine” engagement with the North – but he has also lost popularity. With local elections coming in June, it may be that North Korea wanted to embarrass him by sinking the naval ship – and perhaps sink Lee’s political prospects. Many South Koreans may think Lee can’t keep the peace with the North.
This possible motive for the sinking should be taken seriously by the international community as it seeks a measured response that can deter the Kim regime from further taking such actions. The response should also serve as a reminder to South Koreans that they, too, need to maintain a high degree of vigilance in their public will and military strength.
North Korea is already under economic sanctions by the UN for its nuclear-weapons program. It now deserves stiffer measures for what amounted to an act of war in the sinking of another country’s ship.
This incident should also finally push China to arm-twist its ally in Pyongyang to end its real or threatened military actions, such as missile tests near Japan. Perhaps Kim’s visit to China this month was an indication that Beijing has finally persuaded him that North Korea’s future lies in opening its economy to foreign investment, not in maintaining a war footing with the South.
The unfinished business of the 1950-53 Korean conflict can eventually be resolved.
But it takes resolve, starting with South Koreans themselves.