By Glenn Kessler
Friday, May 21, 2010; A08
Seoul's dramatic accusation this week that North Korea torpedoed one of its warships, killing 46 sailors, sets up what could be one of the most combustible situations in the peninsula in years -- one that could force South Korea and its top ally, the United States, to make hard decisions.
Analysts say the matter must be carefully managed with a series of steps that would punish North Korea without leading to a new conflict.
"It's like the three bears. It has to be strong enough to deter but not too strong to start a war," said Victor Cha, a former Bush administration official now at Georgetown University. "It has to be just right."
China, Pyongyang's main patron, will also be pressured to support efforts to condemn the attack. But China has kept a studied silence on the issue and urged "caution and restraint" in the wake of the report.
On Thursday, the State Department was far less restrained, as spokesman P.J. Crowley called the attack an "unprovoked and unwarranted act" by Pyongyang. He said that "clearly this was a serious provocation by North Korea, and there will definitely be consequences because of what North Korea has done."
The issue is likely to be a prominent feature of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip this week to East Asia; she left Washington on Thursday and plans talks in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul.
North Korea, which has denied involvement in the sinking, denounced the investigation into the attack with unusual swiftness, saying it was a "sheer fabrication" and accusing the South of "pointing a dirty finger at us like a thief." Any retaliation for the attack, the North said, will prompt it to respond with "various forms of tough measures, including all-out war."
Pyongyang added to its threats Friday, saying that if South Korea makes any move to retaliate for the sinking, it would cancel a North-South nonaggression agreement and freeze all inter-Korean relations. It accused South Korea of creating a situation where war "may break out right now."
North Korea is under heavy sanctions because of its missiles tests and two tests of a nuclear device. A U.N. Security Council resolution allows for the inspection of all cargo to and from North Korea and also blacklisted organizations and people associated with the nuclear program.
Charles L. Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said that three sets of limited responses were available to South Korea and its allies. Seoul could take unilateral action, Seoul and Washington could take bilateral action, or the international community could take action, perhaps through the U.N. Security Council.
South Korea could cut off all trade with the North. The conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak has reduced trade, but now it could end even deliveries of sand, which provide the North with much-needed revenue.
More significantly, he said Seoul could officially close the Kaesong Industrial Park, a cooperative venture six miles north of the demilitarized zone. The project is already in trouble, but Pritchard said it would signal the official end of the "sunshine policy" that the South had pursued with North Korea for decades.
Bilaterally, the United States and South Korea could step up intelligence collection, naval cooperation and submarine detection and conduct joint exercises.
Internationally, South Korea has signaled that it will seek a Security Council resolution on the attack. Pritchard said he thinks it will be difficult to get anything more than a statement condemning North Korea, with China abstaining, but Cha said the United States and South Korea should push for some tightening of sanctions. He said that China will come under enormous pressure to support Seoul.
"China has looked so clumsy in the way they have handled this incident," Cha said. He said that China still seems to think that it can separate its relationship with North Korea from its strategic and economic interests in the region. "It will take a conservative government to say you can't do this anymore," he said. "China knows its future is with the South."
Joel Wit, a State Department official in the Clinton administration, said that the options are limited because of fears North Korea will overreact. "Everyone is going to have a strong reaction, but we are really constrained," he said.
Wit said that the Obama administration will ultimately need to find a way to initiate a dialogue with North Korea. Since North Korea's second nuclear test last year, the administration has demanded that Pyongyang return to disarmament talks but has refused concessions or relaxation of sanctions. Wit said that the price of Chinese acceptance of a U.N. resolution might be a return to negotiations.
"We need a long-term strategy," Wit said. "We don't have a strategy. We just have a bunch of tactics."