While attending a security conference Friday in Singapore, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak once again called on the international community to take tough action against North Korea. Relations between the Koreas have deteriorated to a new low following a torpedo attack sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
The renewed tensions were high on the agenda on the first day of the annual Asia-Pacific security forum. Addressing an audience that included defense ministers from other Asia countries, the United States and Russia, the president of South Korea Lee Myung-Bak strongly condemned North Korea for acts of military aggression.
North Korea violated the sovereignty of South Korea, said President Lee when a torpedo fired by Pyongyang in March sank the Cheonan warship. The South Korean president called that a clear act of military provocation.
A multinational investigation team concluded that North Korea was responsible for the attack. Seoul has unilaterally cut off about half of its trade with North Korea and blocked passage of the North's ships in the South's water. North Korea has denied involvement in the attack and responded to the reprisals with threats of war.
Mr. Lee said this was not the first act of aggression by North Korea. In 1983, North Koreans attempted to assassinate the President of South Korea and in 1987, North Korean agents succeeded in detonating a bomb on a Korean Air flight, killing all 125 passengers on board, said the president. The South practiced patience and restraint in hopes of engaging the North through dialogue, he said, but now stronger measures are needed.
He says if they again tolerate North Korea's blatant act of violence, it will not promote peace, but it will endanger the stability of the Korean Peninsula and of Northeast Asia. President Lee pressed for strong international action -- not just to punish North Korea for its recent aggression but to also persuade them to end its nuclear development program.
Also at the conference, United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with his South Korean counterpart Kim Tae-young to show solidarity and discuss plans for possible joint military exercises.
"We obviously very strongly support an international approach to the investigation and want to reassure you and the people of the Republic of Korea that you have the full support back in the United States," said Secretary Gates.
Provocation has long been part of North Korea's survival strategy, according to security analyst Adam Ward with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Ward said the leadership in particular has used the threat of its nuclear program to extract concessions such as food assistance and development. But this last provocation, said Ward, may have pushed South Korea too far.
"I think the balance must now favor deterrence and containment over engagement as a result of this episode. It will certainly make it more difficult for those people in South Korea, for instance, to have made the argument that what you need is a sunshine policy of constant engagement of interaction, of assistance, as providing the basis over the long term of regime change or at least a security against any form of explicit hostility" Ward said.
But he adds that employing a deterrence-only based policy against North Korea will not work either. Despite the tragic loss of life in the attack of the South Korean ship, he said, the international community must try to reduce tensions with North Korea to avoid the possibility of war.
North and South Korea are still technically at war because the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty.