Tensions Rise Between North, South Korea

North Korea on Thursday disputed the conclusion of an international team of investigators that its torpedo sunk a South Korean naval vessel in March, killing 46 sailors. Robert Siegel talks to Victor Cha, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about the findings and North Korea's reaction.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

North Korea today disputed the conclusion of an international team of investigators that its torpedoes sunk a South Korean naval vessel in March. Forty-six sailors died when the Cheonan was sunk, 58 were rescued.

The investigators say it was a North Korean homing torpedo that struck the ship. A North Korean naval spokesman today called that evidence a fabrication, and threatened all out war if the South were to retaliate.

Joining us now is Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He used to be director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. And he's just back from Korea. Welcome to the program.

Dr. VICTOR CHA (Senior Advisor-Korea Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, the investigation. Can you just tell us how the investigators are certain that it was a North Korean torpedo?

Dr. CHA: Well, they have found pieces of evidence - pieces of aluminum. And I think the most incriminating piece of evidence was what appears to be a piece of the torpedo propeller, which had inscriptions on it that were North Korean in origin.

SIEGEL: Why, in your opinion, would North Korea choose to inflict what I gather was the worst military loss South Korea has suffered since the truce of 1953? Why would they do it? Why would they do it now?

Dr. CHA: Well, I think there are two potential answers. One is the primary objective was revenge for an altercation that took place between the two navies in the same waters in November of 2009, in which two North Korean seamen were reported to have been killed. This is obviously on a much larger scale than that.

But another potential reason is that the North Koreans are expressing a great deal of unhappiness with the South Korean government and the more conservative, tougher policies of this government when it comes to inter-Korean assistance. The backdrop of this is the current government came in after 10 years of pretty much unconditional engagement that the South Korean government had provided to the North. And this government is not willing to do that.

SIEGEL: Now, I read today that one part of that is an agreement that had been reached on creating a joint fishing area in waters that extend - effectively extend the Demilitarized Zone into the sea. That had been something that the old government had negotiated with the North, the new government didnt want any part of that. And these are the waters where these incidents have taken place, is that roughly right?

Dr. CHA: Yes. I mean, this area has always been a disputed area in terms of fishing rights and waters going back to the Korean War. But the disputes have never been such that they justify, you know, a premeditated act of firing a torpedo at a South Korean naval vessel.

SIEGEL: What do you expect South Korea to do in response to this?

Dr. CHA: Well, I think, you know, the dilemma for them is that they need to be tough enough to prevent the North Koreans from doing this again. But they certainly dont want to start a war. But the South Koreans will sanction the North in terms of what remaining trade exists between the two countries, and that will have a bite on the North Korean economy.

And I also think that the U.S. and South Korea will work together to enhance naval capabilities in the region, in terms of submarine detection/anti-submarine warfare. And then, finally, I think the South Koreans will want to take this to the U.N., to the Security Council to make their case.

SIEGEL: Does all of this represent to you par for the course in an extremely difficult and dangerous relationship? Or has the danger of escalation increased substantially because of this?

Dr. CHA: That's a very fair question. You know, I think on the one hand, you look at these provocations and say, well, it's just North Korea rattling the cages again. But on the other hand, I sense there's something qualitatively different this time. And the thing that concerns me the most is that North Korea may be on a path where it feels that as a nuclear weapons state it is no longer concerned that other countries might retaliate against it.

Because the one thing that we all thought we pretty good at doing is deterring North Korea from conventional military actions. And this incident may be a sign that we're no longer good at doing that, and why it's so important for all the countries in the region to try to re-establish conventional deterrence with the North.

SIEGEL: Well, Victor Cha, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Dr. CHA: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Victor of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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