Obama, the Sinking of the Cheonan, and the Failure of Nuclear Deterrence

On Thursday, Seoul accused North Korea of firing a torpedo into one of its frigates. Forty-six sailors died on March 26 when an explosion ripped their vessel, the Cheonan, in two.

When parts of the ship were raised, investigators immediately saw that metal was bent inward. Therefore, an external explosion destroyed the warship, eliminating the possibility of an accidental detonation of its magazine. Some then speculated that a mine, perhaps left floating after the Korean War, tore apart the Cheonan. South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency then reported that divers had recovered torpedo fragments from the sea bed. So the sinking had to have been the result of a recent — and deliberate — act.

And who was responsible? One of the torpedo fragments bore North Korean markings. Moreover, the recovered parts were identical to those depicted in a blueprint of a torpedo in a North Korean marketing brochure. Investigators also found traces of a mix of explosives used by communist-bloc countries, including North Korea. Other evidence, analyzed by a group of specialists from six nations, pointed to the only plausible culprit: Pyongyang.

So what will the United States, required by treaty to defend South Korea, do about the sinking? Just hours after the incident, Washington leaned on President Lee Myung-bak to stay quiet and forego retaliation for the ghastly crime. The Obama administration has so far failed to label the torpedo attack an act of war. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that North Korea had already been punished merely because it had further isolated itself from the international community by committing the horrific act.

China, for its part, is maintaining that South Korea’s evidence does not establish North Korea’s involvement in the sinking. Furthermore, Beijing has urged calm, in an apparent attempt to protect its only formal ally. Given great-power support for doing as little as possible about the sinking, it’s no wonder President Lee on Friday said his nation’s response will be “highly prudent.”

A “highly prudent” response, however, will only reinforce in Kim Jong Il’s mind the notion that he has gotten away with the murder of South Koreans, emboldening him to stage future attacks.  The Obama administration, which gives the impression that it does not have a North Asia policy, does not seem to care. Yet its weak response — lots of stirring words and zero leadership — could have repercussions far beyond the troubled Korean peninsula. In fact, the sinking of the Cheonan raises a matter of global significance: the possible failure of deterrence in an age of nuclear terrorism.

During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union were able to prevent the other from launching nuclear-tipped missiles because each knew that retaliation would be, among other things, swift, certain, and devastating.