The sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, and the finding this week that North Korea was to blame turns a tense situation on the peninsula into a full-blown crisis. The South Koreans have so far been restrained in their response and look to be seeking recourse through further U.N. sanctions in the coming days. The United States, for its part, must stand with its South Korean ally and the international community, and send a firm and unambiguous message that North Korean aggression is not acceptable and will be met with consequences.
South Korea stated its intention to take its case to the U.N. Security Council. The United States should unequivocally support further sanctions and work to persuade other members, particularly China, to back the resolution. It should also seriously consider putting North Korea back on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list—a move that is justified by events in the last two years and would provide more sticks to deal with the DPRK. South Korea is also justified in taking steps to protect itself from further attack absent a forceful showing by the United Nations, and the United States will support its ally in those efforts.
China’s interests on the peninsula are complex, but the argument for China supporting sanctions would be persuasive: North Korea has once again engaged in provocative acts that threaten East Asian peace and stability right on China’s doorstep. The international community will not let these acts go unpunished, and from the Chinese point of view, strong action through the United Nations, where it has a voice, is the preferred course.
Moreover, China has supported U.N. sanctions against North Korea in the past, and in a new step it began to enforce them in 2009. The United States should make clear that China’s cooperation with regional partners during this crisis would be a signal of its intention to continue on the trajectory toward becoming a more responsible international player.
The U.N. sanctions that followed North Korea’s nuclear test last year, coupled with a disastrous currency reform effort in the DPRK, have already put intense strain on North Korea’s regime, which just completed a trip to Beijing to ask for more aid this month. (It remains unclear whether Beijing agreed to this aid, though some reports have stated that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao turned down North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s request on the basis that the aid violates U.N. sanctions, which may explain the Dear Leader’s departure one day earlier than scheduled.) Additional sanctions will send a clear message to the North Koreans that the international community will not stand for its antics. South Korea can use its own sanctions to send a strong message as well since it’s the main purchaser of North Korean exports.
The Cheonan incident has made the already troubled Six Party Talks even less likely in the short term. South Korea previously stated it had no intention of resuming six-party talks until the Cheonan investigation was complete. Now that the probe indicts the North Koreans, it is unlikely ROK officials will want to be in the same room with their northern neighbors anytime soon. For them and the United States the incident will have to be resolved before talks can resume.
But in the meantime, the United States can work with the other four members of the talks—South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia—to coordinate efforts to address North Korea’s actions in the larger and longer-term context of denuclearization and regional stability.
If there is any silver lining to the Cheonan sinking, it’s that the United States can use the recent events to demonstrate its renewed commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Asia next week will highlight the importance of America’s stabilizing presence there. She will have the opportunity to show American sympathy for its South Korean ally and discuss a proper response with America’s South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese counterparts.
Finally, the State Department should seriously consider putting North Korea back on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, which increases the kinds of sanctions available to the United States. The Bush administration removed the DPRK from the list in 2008, but since then North Korea has been caught sending weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, and is widely suspected of providing arms and possibly training to the Tamil Tigers. Removing DPRK from the list was a bargaining chip used to incentivize the country’s efforts toward denuclearization. Given recent events, it’s time to leverage the list once again.
Winny Chen is a Policy Analyst and Manager of China Studies for the National Security and International Policy Team at American Progress.