In his May 24 address to the nation, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak outlined an appropriately firm response to North Korea’s vicious attack on the Cheonan naval ship. President Lee’s policy decisions largely mirrored those recommended earlier by Heritage analyst Bruce Klingner, including a decision that “[t]rade and exchanges between the Republic of Korea and North Korea will be suspended.” The South Korean president also called for a more assertive yet still defensive military posture to deter further North Korean attacks and UN Security Council punishment of North Korea. Lee refrained from a retaliatory strike, tempering the anger of the South Korean people with a realization of the military realities of the peninsula.
As recommended by Klingner, the South Korean and U.S. navies will undertake a joint anti-submarine drill in the West Sea, close to the scene of the sinking and the inter-Korean border. The rough currents and murky waters which made the Cheonan investigation difficult also make finding enemy subs in the area extremely challenging. That said, North Korea’s ability to penetrate South Korean waters and sink the Cheonan will force Seoul to reexamine shortfalls in its naval forces.
The joint naval exercise will also demonstrate the importance of a strong U.S.-ROK alliance to augment military capabilities in the near term as well as being better positioned for responding to future contingencies in Asia.
According to Klingner, South Korea must reassess its Defense Reform Plan 2020, since it was predicated on a declining North Korean conventional forces threat. Seoul will need to balance an enhanced near-term priority on deterring and defending against North Korean conventional forces with long-term objectives for expanding its regional security role.
The Heritage Foundation has emphasized that it is absolutely essential that the Obama Administration fully support America’s critically important South Korean ally during its time of tragedy and crisis. There must be neither daylight between Washington and Seoul nor any perceived differences in the bilateral response to Pyongyang’s blatant act of aggression. This tight accord will be crucial, especially as the incident is taken before the United Nations. From its leadership position as a member of the U.N. Security Council, Klingner urges the U.S. to support South Korean efforts for a new U.N. Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan, close the loopholes in Resolution 1874, and insist that all nations fully implement U.N. sanctions.
Along with the coordination with South Korea and in responses where the U.S. will be in the lead, U.S. officials must highlight the benefits of the alliance in the current threat environment posed by North Korea, as well as use the experience and closeness gained to prepare for the next challenge in Asia.