Will North Korea’s Kim Jong-il get away with murder? That’s a question Koreans, and many in the region, are asking a month and a half after a South Korean naval vessel was sunk, killing 46.
An investigation, assisted by U.S. naval intelligence, and other international partners, is still ongoing. Yet it’s all but certain that the Cheonan was torpedoed, an act of war. While North Korean motives (escalation for aid? Kim Jong-il consolidating his power base? rogue captain?) remain the subject of debate, the destruction is clear.
What to do? To read the press, the conventional wisdom is that South Korea would not dare retaliate, for fear of sparking a wider war and that any effort to take the issue to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions would meet China’s veto (Beijing just hosted Kim Jong-il on a state visit). Some see the most likely scenario as the status quo – public condemnation, Beijing continuing to enable Pyongyang with aid and Washington happy not to rock the boat. Watching the State Department spokesman dance around this issue, it’s pretty clear that Foggy Bottom wouldn’t be too bothered if the investigation was permanently “ongoing.”
But is this really a choice between war and nothing? Far from it. The U.S. and our ally in Seoul can still call some shots of our own. Standing up to North Korean aggression could mean:
C1. Make Beijing veto. Seoul has been working its way through a methodical investigation. Once the evidence is compiled, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak could present the evidence – Adlai Stevenson-style – to the U.N. Security Council and ask for an embargo on conventional arms sales to North Korea and other measures. Make Beijing show the world where it stands.
D3. Pull the plug on Kaesong. A joint North-South Korean industrial park that sits just beyond the DMZ in North Korea could be shuttered. As part of the previous South Korean government’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea, the park gives South Korean companies access to cheap North Korean labor. It has provided the North Korean regime with needed hard currency. (Hint – it doesn’t go to the workers.) Time for South Korea to vacate this ill-conceived experiment.
A2. Show of force. Increase combined U.S. and South Korean naval and other military exercises in the region. Identify South Korean defense needs and fast-track weapons sales.
B8. Settle Japanese basing issue for U.S. troops. The ongoing dispute over the relocation of U.S. Marines on Okinawa should be quickly settled. This isn’t just an issue for the U.S. and Japan. It has regional implications. U.S. troops stationed in Japan provide breathing space for others in the region, including South Korea, which has been alarmed by the dispute.
B7. Regional security conference. President Obama should invite democratically elected regional leaders to a conference to discuss security issues in Asia. Host it in Hawaii, the headquarters of U.S. Pacific Command.
B6. Pass KORUS. The President should submit and the Congress should pass the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. Besides considerable economic benefits, the agreement is a strategic winner, demonstrating that there will be no retreat by the U.S. from Northeast Asia.
B5. Target Pyongyang’s Illicit Activities. The Unites States used to use law enforcement to aggressively target North Korea illicit activities – counterfeiting U.S. currency, drug-running, counterfeit cigarettes and pharmaceuticals – until diplomacy gutted those efforts. The effort should be reinvigorated.
Truth be told, all these steps, some having greater impact than others, should be taken. Showing resolve in the face of North Korean aggression, not ignoring 46 deaths, will strengthen deterrence. Unaddressed, North Korea’s attack would only convince others, like Iran, that a nuclear weapons deterrent would give them carte blanche to cause havoc in their region and beyond.
The Obama Administration likes to tout the U.S. as a “Pacific power.” Act like one.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He also writes a blog, Foreign Intrigue, on national security issues.
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