The two Koreas are entering a dangerous new phase in their tortuous relationship. In a speech on May 24, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak suspended trade relations with Pyongyang, barred Northern vessels from passing through South Korean waters, and promised immediate retaliation for any North Korean incursions into the South’s territory by land, sea, or air. The North Koreans responded by denouncing Lee as a “traitor” and a “bastard” and announced that they would answer any Southern military moves with “all-out war.” A North Korean battlefield commander vowed to open fire on South Korean loudspeakers if the government in Seoul attempted to resume long-dormant propaganda broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone. Since President Lee’s speech the North’s all-powerful leader, Kim Jong Il, has vanished from public view—as he has been wont to do in the past whenever he had reason to fear becoming the target of laser-guided munitions used by the South’s army and its US allies.
The proximate cause of this spike of mutual antagonism dates to the last week of March, when a mysterious explosion struck a South Korean naval vessel called the Cheonan. The ship was on patrol near the Northern Limit Line, a maritime border that was unilaterally declared by the South in the wake of the Korean War in 1953 but has never been recognized by Pyongyang. The blast ripped the ship in two, sending both halves to the bottom of the sea and taking the lives of forty-six sailors. Under the circumstances, Lee acted with remarkable restraint. He appointed a multinational commission to examine the incident and gave it all the time and resources it needed to get the job done properly.
Finally, some seven weeks after the explosion, the panel presented its conclusions. The evidence the investigators presented included fragments of a torpedo that had been dredged from the sea floor near the spot where pieces of the Cheonan had also been raised. The torpedo was consistent with a type known to have been sold by Pyongyang to other countries and bore a Korean marking. The investigators also noted that a North Korean naval task force, including several small submarines of a type that could have attacked the ship, had set out from port a few days before the attack and returned a few days later.
Though based on circumstantial evidence, this is about as powerful a case as one might expect to see marshaled in a court of law. The investigators’ careful forensic work has made it clear that the sinking can be attributed only to hostile action; and North Korea is the only state in the region to have both the means and the motive to carry out such an action. One of the details of Pyongyang’s response was particularly revealing. Buried amid …