The torpedo that split the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in half on March 26 blew inter-Korean relations back to the Cold War. Even at the beginning of this year, President Lee Myung-bak had been tentatively preparing for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and offered to help the Stalinist country achieve a per-capita Gross National Income of US$3,000 if it gives up its nuclear weapons program. But the sinking of the Cheonan changed everything.
The sanctions the government announced on Monday include steps to blockade North Korea, which became unavoidable after clear evidence showed that the sinking was an act of military aggression against the South. That ends 10 years of rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula and returns inter-Korean relations to the dark days before 1989, when the two sides agreed to step up exchanges.
Back then, the only law governing inter-Korean relations was the draconian National Security Law, which was based on the principle that the North was South Korea's main enemy. It was a time when tensions were high on the peninsula after North Korean agents set off a bomb killing South Korean officials in Rangoon in 1983 and blew up Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987.
The two Koreas are still technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with merely a ceasefire. The South Korean public has once again been reminded of this reality. Lee in a public address Monday said the peninsula faces a "major turning point."
South Korean troops are preparing for action. They resumed so-called psychological warfare against North Korea on Monday, and plan to shift their rules of engagement from defensive to offensive mode. Around next month, U.S. and South Korean forces will hold joint anti-submarine exercises, and when maritime blockade drills begin during the second half of this year in line with the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, North Korea will be forced to heighten its awareness for a prolonged period.
As soon as Seoul stepped up pressure, the North started a campaign of military brinkmanship, saying Monday it will aim and fire at loudspeakers broadcasting propaganda messages across the demilitarized zone. Experts say North Korea may seek to damage the South Korean economy by heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula through minor clashes along the heavily armed border or along the maritime buffer zone in the West Sea. The government is tasked with maintaining peace and security on the peninsula by containing any threat of North Korea aggression.
The new Cold War triggered by the North Korean torpedo attack has ramifications beyond inter-Korean relations. China would come under tremendous pressure if U.S. aircraft carriers converge on the West Sea for joint military exercises with South Korea while the two allies conduct maritime blockade drills. The torpedo has shattered the shared foundation that the U.S. and China had built up through the six-party nuclear talks. If Beijing-Washington relations sour, both North and South Korea stand to suffer the most.
A deteriorating security situation would inevitably lead to economic damage. The North Korean economy will suffer the heaviest blow since its overseas assets were frozen in 2005 through more UN Security Council sanctions plus U.S. financial sanctions on top of severed trade with South Korea. But the South Korean economy will suffer as well.