South Korea at Sea on Response to Boat Sinking

South Korea once again finds itself in a dilemma as to what action to take after yet another attack that almost certainly came from North Korea.

As expected, a joint investigation team tentatively concluded on April 25 in the postmortem on the sinking of the South Korean Navy patrol boat Cheonan that "the shape of the fracture lines and conditions of the interior and exterior of the hull indicate an underwater explosion," adding that "we believe that it was a close-range explosion rather than a direct hit as the interior and exterior of the hull had no traces of burns or melting due to heat or a puncture."

The 88-meter Cheonan was torn in half near Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea near North Korean territory with the loss of 46 South Korean sailors. The probe appears to bear out the initial supposition that it had been hit by a torpedo rather than by a mine.

Well before the team's conclusion, North Korea's involvement in the Cheonan's sinking was an article of faith among many conservatives here in Seoul. The blast has changed the thinking of some liberals, shaking their faith in the sunshine engagement policy as their only source of reconciliation and cooperation between South and North Koreas. Once again, North Korea has become the infamous regime that most excites conservatives and dismays liberals. Conservatives and liberals alike believe that North Korea is taking the wrong approach. Given this, South Korea seems to have won the opening gambit in whatever chess game the two countries ultimately plan.

While the South Korean Department of Defense, still concerned by the paucity of valuable evidence emanating from the broken ship, struggles to search for decisive evidence related to the explosion, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has naturally emerged as the usual suspect, albeit Pyongyang has already denied the country's involvement.

President Lee Myung-bak, who is in a position to receive conclusive information on the mysterious blast, warned that the tragic incident should not be interpreted as political. Others jeered, including the two former South Korean presidents Kim Young-sam and Chun Doo-hwan, who joined a luncheon hosted by President Lee in which he made that statement.

In the eyes of some radical right-wingers who count the president as "one of us" and are eager to press him hard on any allegations of involvement of possible North Korean submarines, the Lee government appears to be uncommonly sensitive to the idea that the attack possibly came from North Korea. Some conservatives point out that the North Korean regime's loyalists are like deluded Japanese soldiers who mistakenly fought after the defeat of Japan in 1945, saying that "they are just final remnants of the failed regime."

As if on cue, some influential local newspapers have quickly floated the suggestions in their editorial and Op-Ed sections that the Lee government should move to a war footing reflexively, right now, in the presumed hope of obtaining conservative support in their hard-line stance against the Kim regime, which remains bellicose and has not abandoned its ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons. The move raised some eyebrows from lots of pundits on the political left in the beginning.

On the political right, many people who have made a sport of predicting the poverty-stricken regime's collapse seem to imagine a special operations unit inside the Defense Department that would be a great James Bond operation in the Hollywood version in accordance with specific, actionable intelligence.

In reality, however, there seems to be not much Seoul can do independently over the cause of the explosion. Without being able to disseminate the satellite photos offered by US military authorities -- the mother lode of information on North Korean military locations -- South Koreans are not able to reach any solid and sound conclusions with regard to the whereabouts of North Korean submarines.

It goes without saying that to South Korea, like someone in a knife fight, wants the US covering its back. The high-value photos are available only on a ‘need-to-know' basis. The US government has stipulated that there be absolutely no publicity about the photos' existence.

So, without access to hard evidence of North Korea's involvement, I find it inappropriate to assert that the Lee government should rush to counterattack against the North. At the same time, bellicose rhetoric cannot simply end the invisible war unless the national security system stops blinking red.

Of course, some can selectively interpret or misinterpret the cause of the Cheonan affair and suggest an ulterior motive of flag-wagging by claiming that the naval tragedy was associated with the diabolical regime in North Korea, even if they do not all want to go that route. So, it's wise gamesmanship that the president has carefully avoided pinning the blame on the regime in Pyongyang.

In the meantime, a series of provocative propaganda statements by the North make front-page headlines every day. The threats are clearly related to the blast in terms of psychological warfare. Seoul believes the issue is not whether to blame Pyongyang for the blast but how much to blame it. Seoul is likely to get the answer very soon, while stoking vast confusion about the cause of the explosion.

The answer can be another beginning of the debate over the incident, only if it fails to provide scientific evidence unvarnished by politics or partisan ambition in consideration of scheduled local elections on June 2. From the perspective of Mr. Lee and his acolytes, the results of the June 2 elections are a political litmus test of "continuity-of-government" exercises.

The absence of tangible evidence poses an unwelcoming question going to the heart of the Lee government's principled counteraction protocol: Could Seoul legally retaliate against Pyongyang? None of the South Korean officials seem to think that they can act alone. Figuratively speaking, Seoul can try to put on wings (the investigation team's conclusion) and defy gravity (China's reluctance), but eventually Seoul will be pulled down. In all, the question is how to bring the hidden truth of the blast out of the dark. The rest is piffle.

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.