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A touchstone of Lee’s leadership

Almost six weeks have passed since the nation’s worst naval disaster in decades took the lives of 46 young sailors near the disputed inter-Korean sea border.

President Lee Myung-bak attends a meeting on preparations for the G20 summit in Seoul on Tuesday. Lee Gil-dong/The Korea Herald
President Lee Myung-bak attends a meeting on preparations for the G20 summit in Seoul on Tuesday. Lee Gil-dong/The Korea Herald
The need to make wise decisions regarding the verification of who is to blame for the Cheonan’s sinking and what countermeasures to take puts President Lee Myung-bak at a critical juncture nearly halfway into his five-year term.

Investigators including international experts are yet to announce what caused the “underwater explosion near the portside of the ship” after an analysis of “aluminum fragments (found at the site of sinking) that do not appear to be part of the Cheonan.”

About 70 percent of the investigators on the joint probe team are South Korean military officials. The joint probe team had said that the possibility of a collision with a reef or a fatigue fracture was very low, but did not completely rule them out.

Nevertheless, suspicions that North Korea may have been behind the March 26 sinking of the 1,200-ton Navy corvette run high in the South as President Lee vows to take "stern measures” against whoever is responsible.

Lee has mainly three tasks. One that he can start working on now is to strengthen the South Korean Armed Forces, be it through military morale or weaponry. The second would be a hypothetical one -- deciding what measures to take if evidence points to the North. The most long-term task would be to wisely manage Seoul’s relationship with Pyongyang and effectively prepare for unification.

North Korea policy

The third task is a constitutional requirement as the Constitution of the Republic of Korea states that the ROK shall seek unification and shall formulate and carry out a policy of peaceful unification based on the principles of freedom and democracy.

Pundits such as Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies, say it would be unwise for Seoul to link the Cheonan disaster with efforts to resume the six-nation nuclear talks.

“The six-party talks are basically movements among South and North Korea, Japan and Russia amid a power struggle between the United States and China,” Yang said.

“It would be wise for South Korea to try to reopen the six-party talks while concentrating on verifying what caused the Cheonan’s sinking. Linking the naval disaster to six-party talks when the probe is still ongoing would be risky for Seoul as Washington, Beijing and Pyongyang are seeking to resume the multilateral nuclear talks.”

Kim Jong-il’s visit to Beijing indicates that North Korea and China have reached a certain level of agreement on resuming the six-nation talks, Yang said.

“It seems like Pyongyang left the decision on the timing of the next round of six-party talks in Beijing’s hands. Kim wouldn’t have visited Beijing otherwise,” he said.

There has been mutual understanding between China and the United States that the six-party talks will reopen after a one-on-one meeting between Pyongyang and Washington, and preliminary talks among the six nations.

Washington yesterday expressed hope that China will persuade North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks on ending its nuclear ambitions, which have been stalled over international sanctions for the North’s missile and nuclear tests.

“We would trust that if there are meetings with high-level Chinese officials, that they will stress, as we do, that the only route forward for North Korea is through the six-party process,” U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

“South Korea should actively take part in the six-nation talks in order to play a bigger role in future discussions for a peace treaty,” Yang said. A peace treaty would replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement, under which the Koreas are still technically at war.

Finger pointing at North Korea

President Lee, however, publicly spoke of his “intuition” on Tuesday that North Korea was the most likely culprit behind the Cheonan’s sinking, adding weight to the likelihood of efforts for international action against the North.

Lee also said last month that his government has asked foreign specialists taking part in the probe to sign the final investigation report to “help raise international credibility.”

Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said last month that Seoul could consider taking the Cheonan case to the U.N. Security Council if North Korea is found responsible.

“Once the final investigation report is ready, we could circulate it among the 15 member states of the Security Council and this won’t take long,” said Shin Dong-ik, chief of the Foreign Ministry’s international organizations bureau.

“For discussions on what actions to take, one of the five permanent members will have to request a meeting (of the Security Council).”

But because the suspected North Korean involvement would be a bilateral issue between the Koreas, the extent of a Security Council resolution, if sought, would be limited. The Security Council already imposed strong economic sanctions against North Korea after its nuclear and missile tests a year ago.

“A possible resolution by the Security Council would have more of a political or symbolic meaning rather than adding to punitive sanctions,” Shin said.

Military reform

While the task of pressing for international punishment remains hypothetical, efforts to reinforce the military have already begun.

President Lee said Tuesday that an ad hoc task force will be launched soon to lead a planned overhaul of the national security system.

The task force, tentatively named the Commission for National Security Review, will scrutinize the nation’s defense capabilities, crisis management system, military reform drive and other pending security-related issues, and map out corrective steps, Lee said.

Lee has also said the military must better prepare itself against asymmetric threats from the North, which include short-range ballistic missiles, long-range artillery, submarines and weapons of mass destruction.

The specific plans for this will be included in the revised National Defense Reform 2020 blueprint to be reported to the president by the end of this year.

The Navy, which has so far called for securing large, high-end vessels such as the Aegis ships, amphibious assault ships and submarines, could better counter North Korean naval threats with smaller and faster boats, according to experts.

“To counter North Korean submarines and agent boats, the first step is to deploy sensors to detect those submarines in the shallow waters of the northwest islands and elsewhere,” said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at RAND Corporation.

“South Korea then needs more warships like submarines to intercept a North Korean intruder.”

South Korea and the United States need to examine their vulnerabilities to the variety of provocations North Korea could use and decide which gaps are most urgent.

“I worry most about information gathering through naval sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles and motivating defectors, followed by selected counters that would reduce the likelihood that North Korea can succeed with its provocations such as missile or artillery defenses,” Bennett said.

“In addition, South Korea and the United States need to prepare to handle a North Korean regime failure. For example, I think President Lee Myung-bak should say that if North Korea was responsible for the Cheonan sinking, it did so because of instability in the North, and South Korea must prepare to deal with that instability much as West Germany prepared for East German instability.”

Bennett suggested preparations by the South Korean and U.S. Marines to deliver humanitarian aid along the North Korean coastlines to demonstrate concern for the North Korean people.

“I believe that Kim Jong-il would really hate such an ROK action, because it would strongly argue that North Korea is unstable, and demonstrate how the ROK and the U.S. could deal with that instability,” the U.S. expert said.

By Kim So-hyun (