North Korea's Provocations: The World's Limited Options

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An undated picture released by the Korean Central News Agency on April 26, 2010, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, center, visiting the command of Korean Peoples Army Unit 586

You can't quite set your watch by it — Kim Jong Il is not that predictable — but every year (and sometimes more than once) the regime in North Korea does something that reminds the world, yet again, of two things: just how beyond the pale the government in Pyongyang is and just how powerless the rest of the world is to do anything consequential about it.

Just over a month ago, while sailing off the western coast of South Korea, a South Korean naval ship, the 1,200-ton Cheonan, was cut nearly in half by an explosion and sank swiftly thereafter. Forty-six sailors died. After weeks of confusion about what exactly happened — was it attacked? had some of its own on-board munitions exploded? had it accidentally struck a mine? — the South Korean government has now come very close to endorsing the conclusion expressed publicly April 24 by its Defense Minister Kim Tae Young: that "a heavy torpedo is most likely the cause of the sinking."

Kim didn't specifically say it was a North Korean torpedo. He didn't need to, nor does the South Korean government necessarily want to. "South Korea is now like a CSI investigator who, upon seeing a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, refuses to rule out a heart attack as the cause of death since the only suspect in the room with a pistol is a vicious gangland boss," says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former CIA analyst. "Better to engage in a lengthy investigation, both to gather irrefutable evidence and to delay the inevitable day of reckoning."

The gangster analogy is apt. It precisely captures the dynamic that keeps the North's relations with the outside world pretty much exactly where they've been for the past 20 years. As long as Kim and company don't do anything truly crazy, like start bombing Seoul, there is virtually nothing that South Korea, the U.S. or anyone else can do to constrain their smaller acts of war. And make no mistake, firing a torpedo that sinks a South Korean ship in South Korea's own waters is an act of war, no less than a North Korean artillery attack on the South Korean parliament building in Seoul would be.

It's just that smaller acts of war cannot be allowed to matter. Hillary Clinton infuriated many South Koreans when she said on April 22 that she hopes "there is no talk of war, there is no action or miscalculation that could provoke a response that might lead to conflict. That's not in anyone's interest." The Secretary of State also added that "the way to resolve the outstanding differences [between the Koreas] was for the North to return to the six-party-talk framework [which involves trying to bribe the North into giving up its nuclear weapons] as soon as possible." Though the State Department says Clinton's message was aimed at Pyongyang, that's not the way a lot of people in the South took it. To them it sounded like 46 South Korean sailors lie at the bottom of the sea, but God forbid South Korea do anything that "might lead to conflict."

However politically tone-deaf that remark might have been in substance, pretty much everyone in Seoul, up to and including President Lee Myung Bak, understands it's also correct. To be sure, there have been hawkish noises in Seoul in the wake of the Cheonan's sinking, including some coming from surprising sources. Kim Jang-soo, the former Defense Minister under the late Roo Moo Hyun (as dovish and nonconfrontational a President as his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung) told TIME Wednesday that "both military and nonmilitary actions have to be considered," including "a possible naval blockade and the striking of a limited military target." Kim has switched parties since he worked for Roh — he's now a member of Lee Myung Bak's ruling Grand National Party — but his public comment shows just how raw emotions are in Seoul at the moment.

But the notion that a conflict might in fact build from here is remote. President Lee has already said he "had no intention of invading the North," and even the anger and sorrow now evident in South Korea does not create an appetite for war. People want the North to be punished but not militarily.

That means Seoul's options are extremely limited. Hyundai Asan's $1 billion investment in the Mount Geumgang tourist area in the North already looks like a goner, since Seoul suspended tourism in July 2008 when a 53-year-old South Korean woman accidentally walked into an off-limits military zone and was shot dead by North Korean soldiers. There is almost no food aid going from South to North. So the most obvious target for tighter economic sanctions is the Kaesong industrial complex, which currently houses factories for some 120 South Korean companies just across the demilitarized zone in the North. Nearly 40,000 North Koreans work there for minimal wages, and feeding them would be an additional burden on the North at a time when famine is, by many accounts, again becoming a problem. But no one believes shutting Kaesong would be a crippling blow; indeed, Pyongyang itself has been threatening to shut the complex unless the South agrees to normalize inter-Korean relations.

As always, that leaves a lot of people casting longing glances at Beijing. If only the mighty Chinese would now kick into gear and shut down trade with the North to punish them. It's unlikely to happen — not to any significant degree, anyway. Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs on George W. Bush's National Security Council, doesn't even think Beijing would sign on to tighter U.N. sanctions limiting the North's ability to buy conventional naval weaponry. Remember: the Chinese, like Washington, have been hoping to get the North to return to the hallowed six-party talks. All year, there have been rumors in Seoul and Beijing that a visit by Kim Jong Il to the Chinese capital was imminent.

Under the circumstances, it's going to be tough to get the South Koreans excited again about those talks. (Asked whether this incident will affect efforts to restart them, Cha, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, deadpans, "It certainly doesn't help.") But since the first term of the Bush Administration, when a tougher North Korea policy led Pyongyang to accelerate its nuclear program, the outside world has had no stomach for any confrontation with Pyongyang. It still doesn't.

In June, the U.S. and South Korea, among others, will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. Like six other South Korean sailors killed in an episode in 2002, and like 115 civilians killed when North Korean spies blew up a Korean Airlines plane in 1987, the 46 who died last month are casualties in a war that, 60 years on, has never really ended.

With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul