More than a month after the mysterious incident, the South Korean Defense Ministry will present what a diplomatic source called "credible and extensive" evidence that a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo at and sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel operating in Seoul's own territorial waters. Forty-six sailors died as result of the attack. What happens after that announcement which will present the evidence that was gathered for more than a month by a team of international investigators is decidedly less clear.
The question squarely on the table now for Seoul and its allies in Washington and Tokyo not to mention North Korea's patron in Beijing is straightforward: What price should North Korea pay in response to what appears to have been an act of war and a clear violation of the armistice agreement that has kept a tenuous peace on the peninsula since 1953?
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will take up that question with her counterparts in China, Japan and then South Korea when she arrives on Friday for a visit to East Asia. Though South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has said that no option military included is off the table, analysts believe there is little chance of any retaliatory strike from Seoul. Even if Kim Jong Il and his generals in the North "fully understand who would be the ultimate loser" if a hot war on the peninsula suddenly broke out," as Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says, the potential cost of any escalation to the South remains too much to bear. So while there may be "genuine fury" amid the highest echelons of the South Korean government, as a Western diplomat said on Wednesday, Seoul also "knows well that it can't risk this getting out of hand. There is no appetite in South Korea for a war."
For the Obama Administration, the key issue going forward is whether the six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the North (which started under the Bush Administration) are worth salvaging or whether the Cheonan attack renders them moot once and for all. (A State Department spokesman, with comical understatement, said on Tuesday that the North's "provocative actions" have "at times impeded progress on the six-party process.") Kim earlier this month visited Beijing for the first time since 2006, and according to China's official news agency, the Dear Leader said "the Democratic People's Republic of Korea will work with China to create favorable conditions for restarting six-party talks." Since even that statement stopped well short of saying that Kim would return to the table, both the Americans and the Chinese must know that the six-party obsession must, at minimum, be put aside for a good long while. Seoul, with full American support, diplomatic sources say, will now go to the U.N. Security Council seeking a range of intensified sanctions against Pyongyang. "We have enough evidence [to do so]," South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan said on Tuesday.
How Beijing reacts to that effort will be critically important, since China remains North Korea's de facto economic lifeline. China accounts for fully one-third of North Korea's total external trade, and in the wake of sanctions enacted a year ago after Pyongyang's second nuclear test, it is thus "even more central to any effective sanctions effort," says Marcus Noland, a fellow at the Peterson Institute of International Economics in Washington. "A cutoff of critical Chinese oil shipments, much less a complete trade embargo, would bring the country to its knees."