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SEOUL — South Korea rose from the ashes of the Korean War to become one of the leading economic powers in the world, so it’s not likely to risk ruin once again over the March 26 sinking of one of its naval patrol ships.

A multi-national team of investigators announced Thursday that evidence the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack was “overwhelming.” South Korea and its ally the U.S. are expected to announce a response to the incident later, but experts interviewed Thursday said a military response is highly unlikely.

“The South has a lot to lose from another war,” said David Garretson, an international relations professor at the University of Maryland’s University College in South Korea. “The North has a lot less to lose.

“The general consensus is that the South would win a war (against the North), with the help of the United States, but it would be a bloody mess. The North Koreans are trying to say: ‘Push us around all you want to, but look what we can do to you, and there’s not much you can do back to us. You may win, but you will be devastated.’”

Garretson said North Korea’s biggest ally, China, “is probably not happy about this, but they are not going to crash on (North Korea). China has broader objectives, and she is willing to tolerate this. I think economic development is more important to them than using their political capital to pressure North Korea to behave.”

By the same token, South Korea’s most important ally, the U.S., has greater concerns elsewhere in the world and cannot afford to be drawn into another armed conflict.

Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, a multinational not-for-profit organization headquartered in Brussels, said South Korea’s response decision won’t come easy.

“There are no quick, easy policy options,” he said.

Aside from the risk of sparking a resumption of the Korean War with a military response, Pinkston said, “ethically and morally, is that the right thing to do? Lives would be lost, and it wouldn’t be the lives of those who were responsible for the attack.”

South Korea is expected to take its case to the United Nations Security Council in hopes it will slap additional economic sanctions on the rogue nation.

“There are already pretty robust sanctions in place,” Pinkston pointed out, adding that not much else can be done that will have much of an impact on North Korea.

The South could use civil lawsuits and other measures to target the money North Korean leaders, or the regime itself, have in foreign banks, or the country’s ability to engage in “normal international transactions,” Pinkston said.

Garretson said he does not believe economic sanctions ultimately will lead to a regime change in North Korea.

“That is everybody’s wishful thinking,” he said. “Economic sanctions and stuff like that are not going to slow her up. I don’t think (the regime) is going to collapse myself. It’s really frustrating.”

Pinkston said that while “the overwhelming focus of this should be on the North Korean attack,” South Korea should use the lessons learned from the incident to strengthen its anti-submarine defenses and address problems exposed in its command-and-control and search-and-rescue capabilities.

rabiroffj@pstripes.osd.mil

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