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.

States like Kim’s Korea, however, may look at Washington’s so-far inadequate response to the Cheonan incident and believe that a future act of nuclear terrorism just might go unpunished. If so, deterrence could fail.

How could that happen? It would take weeks — and perhaps months — to conclusively determine the source of fissile material used by nuclear terrorists. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the home of “cutting-edge forensics,” can find a particle that is out of place and measure things that weigh no more than a femtogram, 0.000000000000001 of a gram. Its technicians can look at the smallest speck of uranium and find out how it was formed.

But the IAEA’s near-magical work takes time, just as it took time to establish responsibility for the Cheonan’s sinking. Intelligence analysts knew within hours that the North Koreans used a torpedo to sink the vessel, but detective works requires patience — in this case, more than seven weeks — to find, analyze, and present evidence.

As hours turn into days, days into weeks, and weeks into months, the certainty of a retaliatory response decreases. In our complex world, there is always a reason not to act, and those reasons grow stronger over time. In the Cheonan case, we are already hearing the calls for South Korea to move on and consider “the broader issues.”

Secretary of State Clinton, when she was in Tokyo on Friday, ruled out a purely regional reaction to the Cheonan’s sinking and signaled that China, Pyongyang’s best friend, would have to be part of the world’s response. Yet six decades of history show that China will not permit the international community to punish the North in any serious fashion. In short, the Obama administration looks like it will, once again, let Kim Jong Il off lightly.

“Deterrence requires a combination of power, the will to use it, and the assessment of these by the potential aggressor,” noted Henry Kissinger. “Moreover, deterrence is the product of those factors and not the sum. If any of them is zero, deterrence fails.”

Deterrence looks like it might fail soon. The Cheonan incident could convince Chairman Kim and other potential aggressors that they will pay no price for committing horrible acts. Even in such a clear-cut circumstance as the sinking of the South Korean frigate, the international community is having trouble imposing punishments on the aggressor.

When responsibility is murkier, the urge to retaliate will be even more muted. And that can give ideas to terrorism-sponsoring states. Take Iran, for instance. As the Islamic Republic builds its links with al-Qaeda and accelerates the enrichment of uranium, we have to wonder whether the mullahs think the slow — and uncertain — response to the sinking of the Cheonan will make nuclear terrorism a possible option for them.

So there is a lot riding on Washington’s response to the sinking of the Cheonan. This is not just about South Korea.