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July 23, 2017

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North Korea torpedo attack raises tensions

There is no real surprise in the formal accusation by South Korea that the navy corvette ship Cheonan was sunk, killing forty-six sailors, by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. This conclusion results from a thorough investigation of physical evidence by an international team of technical experts, including participants from the United States.

Seoul now is bringing formal charges before the United Nations, urging sanctions against Pyongyang. There will doubtless be strong global support, given the shocking unprovoked nature of the North Korean attack. The pivotal power will be China, North Korea's sole remaining ally, and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council along with Britain, France, Russia and the U.S.

Pyongyang has denied the accusations with even greater blaring stridency than usual. This hermit kingdom seems caught, or perhaps lost, in a time warp involving the most intense years of the Cold War.

North Korean loud speakers relentlessly repeating extreme communist propaganda slogans were a particularly bizarre feature on the front lines during the brutal Korean War of 1950 to 1953. They have continued sporadically to punctuate life on the tense DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) along Latitude 38N, which separates the two halves of Korea.

The lost ship is a very human tragedy, in what media commentators stress is the greatest loss of life in Korea in an armed incident since that war, but the bloody attack should not be surprising. The sinking occurred in the same area where last November ships had a shooting confrontation in which North Korean sailors may have been killed. Simple motivations of military revenge -- independent of any top-level decision in Pyongyang--may have spurred the torpedo attack.

Killings as well as kidnappings of South Koreans -- and others - are an established feature of North Korea's behavior. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton intervened successfully last summer to secure the release of two young women journalists seized by North Koreans after they wandered across the border with China.

In 1983, a terrorist bombing in Rangoon Burma linked to North Korea killed members of South Korea's cabinet, among others. In 1968, North Korean vessels seized the U.S. ship Pueblo. The crew survived, but was released only after months of especially brutal imprisonment and torture.

This latest violence is as unlikely as previous incidents to lead to renewal of general fighting. The Korean War was extraordinarily costly, and neither side has ever tried to renew such hostilities. North Korea now has at least a primitive nuclear weapon, but any use would result in instant devastating retaliation.

Seoul's economic leverage is crucial. China's trade with South Korea now approaches approximately US$200 billion per year, compared to about US$3 billion with North Korea. South Korea's government should use this leverage to maximum advantage. North Korea remains committed to cooperation with South Korea in promoting the Kaesong industrial zone just north of the 38th Parallel.

The Obama administration should strongly support Seoul's leadership. The just-announced massive joint anti-submarine drill is a smart move. Such exercises and other military cooperation date back to the Cold War. The White House should also visibly participate in ceremonies honoring those killed by Pyongyang's torpedo.

The U.S. should emphasize the U.N., which came to the defense of South Korea in 1950, even as that war confirmed the global reach of the Cold War. Now as much as ever, Seoul needs our support.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of "After the Cold War" (Korean ed. Oruem Publishing; Macmillan and NYU Press). He can be reached at

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