Pyongyang Sank South Korean Warship — Now What?

May 25th, 2010
Published in Human Events May 25, 2010.

As a North Korean submarine fired a heavy torpedo at the unsuspecting South Korean warship Cheonan, sinking her on March 26, Pyongyang believed it had gotten away with murder.

It apparently had no idea evidence—such as torpedo parts, retrieved acoustics data, etc.—would all be recoverable in an extensive forensics investigation that would eventually link North Korea to the attack. The investigation’s credibility was undeniable—its findings reached by an international team of experts lacking a political agenda and only seeking the truth, no matter where it led.

Even before the team released its May 20 report, Pyongyang threatened war should Seoul blame it for the incident. Pyongyang’s cowardly act in sinking the Cheonan, followed by its threat of war if found responsible for doing so, leaves Seoul in the difficult position—once again—of seeking to deal rationally with an irrational leadership.

The question now is what can Seoul do, not only to respond to yet another act of aggression by North Korea, but also to effect a change in the mindset of Pyongyang’s psychopathic leader, Kim Jong Il?

Two options exist. Only one will work.

The first is to seek action from the UN Security Council to impose new sanctions on North Korea. Sanctions in the past have proven absolutely useless in curbing Pyongyang’s bad behavior. There is no reason to think that will change. And, with North Korea’s ally—China—on the Security Council, there is little hope crippling sanctions would be imposed anyway.

The second option requires some background explanation.

North Korean acts of aggression have plagued the South ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953. These have included a failed assassination attempt against the president that killed the First Lady, the hijacking and destruction of commercial aircraft, dispatching assassins South to kill North Korean defectors, kidnapping South Korean citizens, etc.

Seoul has met each of these transgressions with tempered responses. Such restraint, however, has only encouraged further aggression by the North.

During these past several decades, as Pyongyang’s acts of aggression repeatedly claimed South Korean lives on the South’s territory, the only North Korean lives claimed by Seoul were of those who had violated its territorial integrity to perpetrate the acts. Thus, not once since the end of the Korean War has Seoul responded to Pyongyang with a like-kind military response on North Korean soil. (Interestingly, as these acts of aggression by North Korea claimed lives in the South, more than two million lives have been claimed in the North—not from South Korean action—but from North Korean inaction in feeding its own people.)

A military response by Seoul is now necessary. Such a response needs to be conducted in a way that eliminates Kim Jong Il or, if unsuccessful in doing so, at least instills a sense of fear into him about continuing to follow a terrorism-based foreign policy.

All dictators who resort to terrorism do so with little concern as to personal consequences. They dispatch their messengers of death without fear of personal retribution. Protected in ivory towers far removed from the battleground chosen to perform the terrorist act, they are freely willing to sacrifice the lives of others—those of their messengers and of the victim populations where the act occurs.

Never a factor in the dictator’s decision to undertake a terrorist act is a concern of personal retaliation by the victim state. It is time for Seoul to change this mindset. It is time for Seoul to eliminate Kim Jong Il or reorient his thinking so the threat of personal retaliation always weighs heavy on his mind in considering future acts of terrorism.

Even before inheriting North Korea’s leadership role following his father’s death in 1994, Kim Jong Il masterminded many of the terrorist attacks conducted against the South. His doing so marks him as a terrorist leader. As such, no distinction exists between Kim Jong Il and the terrorist leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Accordingly, just as al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders have—by their terrorist acts—declared themselves targets for retaliation by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, similarly Kim Jong Il—by his terrorist acts—declares himself a target for retaliation by Seoul.

With its high altitude drone—the Predator—the U.S. has launched a very successful campaign to extract a high price from these terrorist leaders for plying this tool of their trade.

While South Korea lacks a Predator capability, it needs to adopt the concept. Random missile strikes, targeting Kim Jong Il personally, launched from land, air or sea-based assets are needed to hold him responsible for his terrorist acts.

No advance warning of this campaign is mandated as, technically, both countries remain at war in the absence of a signed peace treaty. And, in any event, North Korea’s act of war in sinking the Cheonan relieves Seoul of any legal obligation to forewarn of a military response.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, initiating its “shock and awe” campaign to take out Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il went into hiding in North Korea for weeks. He feared, having embarked upon an aggressive effort to target Saddam, that the U.S. might re-direct a similar effort against him. As the US became bogged down in Iraq, however, Kim Jong Il realized this would not happen and re-emerged from hiding.

Rogue leaders such as the North Korean dictator, while callously willing to spill the blood of others, are reluctant to see their own spilled. But, when this is threatened, attitudes quickly change. It happened with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi—a sponsor of terrorism until an April 1986 U.S. raid targeting him personally caused him to hit his “reset” button. That raid abruptly ended his reign of terror.

Terrorism is part of Kim Jong Il’s DNA. North Korean acts of aggression have repeatedly been met by the South’s tempered non-military response, except where military action was required as a right of self-defense. Seoul can expect no change in Kim Jong Il’s aggressive mindset until the one thing the “Psychopath from Pyongyang” values more than anything else—his own life—is targeted for retaliation.

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