If You Can't Retaliate, You Weren't Attacked
SEOUL — On the evening of March 26, Cheonan, a 1,200-ton South Korean corvette, was on patrol in coastal waters near the disputed border with North Korea when its stern was suddenly torn away by a powerful explosion.
The warship sank within a few minutes, taking the lives of 46 sailors. The South Korean government initially assumed the warship was attacked by a North Korean submarine and put its military on high alert.
However, the next morning the South Korean government began to work hard to dismiss or at least downplay the probability of a North Korean attack. President Lee Myung-bak and his officials warned against “premature conclusions” and emphasized that there was no definite evidence linking the Cheonan disaster to North Korea.
They might be right: despite occasional bouts of bellicose rhetoric, North Korea is currently in a negotiating mood (that is, seeking to squeeze more money from the outside world). But the evidence points to an external explosion roughly equivalent to that of 180 kilograms of TNT, so a mine or torpedo are the most plausible explanations.
If so, why is the Seoul government dismissing such an option? There are good reasons for this. If North Korean involvement was established, the Seoul government would face a hard choice: it would have to retaliate or be seen as spineless. This is a lose-lose situation for South Korea, since it has no way of “punishing” the North.
Full-scale war is out of the question. The military balance leaves almost no doubt that a war would be won by the South (with some American involvement), but the price of victory would be unacceptably high.
The Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of South Korea’s population, lies within range of a heavy concentration of North Korean artillery. A massive artillery barrage would leave many thousands dead and devastate vital parts of the country. Any advance north across difficult and heavily fortified mountainous terrain would also be very costly — not to mention the costs of postwar reconstruction.
So nothing short of a massive North Korean attack on major population centers in the South would likely be seen by Seoul as sufficient cause for a large-scale military operation.
Limited actions, such as raids against the North Korean naval and military installations, would make the Seoul government look strong in the eyes of voters, but would create many problems for which the same voters would soon start blaming the government.
Plus, such raids are useless. Kim Jong Il and his henchmen would not lose sleep if they learned that a few dozen North Korean sailors or soldiers were killed in a South Korean attack. In the North, even the death of many thousands is politically irrelevant so long as they are not members of Kim’s inner circle. At the same time, such raids would scare investors away from South Korea and damage its financial rating.
Financial sanctions, such as closing the Kaesong industrial park, a joint South-North economic development, or freezing the few remaining exchange projects, might seem attractive at first glance, but in the long run could be counterproductive. Contrary to some assumptions, the Kaesong park and other exchange projects are damaging for Kim Jong Il, since they represent a potentially dangerous contact with the outside world.
Without any means of retaliating, Lee Myung-bak’s administration may have decided to play down the likelihood of North Korea’s involvement or at least portray it as one of several possible explanations.
Whether North Korea was involved or not, the Cheonan affair is a sober reminder that if North Korea did choose to become aggressive again, not much could be done to counter it. Partial operations might be impressive but are inefficient, and large-scale retaliation would likely be quietly blocked by the South Koreans. This is understandable — they’re the ones who live on the front line.