SEOUL — With their suspicions all but confirmed that North Korea was behind the sinking of a South Korean patrol ship nearly two months ago, South Korean leaders are struggling to figure out what they can do to respond.

The answer, at least in the short term: not much.

North Korea has a long history of border transgressions with the South, thumbing its nose at international peace talk efforts and, more recently, developing nuclear weapons capabilities and launching test missiles.

The March 26 sinking of the Cheonan, if linked to North Korea, would be the latest affront.

“The North Koreans aren’t deterred from doing nuclear tests,” said Victor Cha, Korea chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “Now, they’re not deterred from basically shooting down a South Korean ship. We have to reestablish deterrence. The challenge is trying to do that without sparking a war.”

South Korea is expected to announce soon its findings as to the cause and who is responsible for the explosion that split the Cheonan in two in South Korean waters near the Yellow Sea maritime border with the North. The bodies of 38 sailors have been recovered, but eight remain missing. Fifty-eight crew members were rescued from the ship shortly after the explosion.

The report, which could come next week, is expected to declare North Korea responsible for the incident.

On Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Yong-joon and Deputy Defense Minister for Policy Chang Kwang-il were to leave for the U.S. to prepare for a July meeting of foreign and defense ministers — and, according to Korean news reports, to discuss joint measures in response to the sinking.

Experts say South Korea has ruled out military strikes against nuclear-armed North Korea. That, they contend, could potentially kill millions of people on both sides of the border. Political and diplomatic options are limited because of the dim but very real threat of war, and because China — North Korea’s neighbor and strongest ally — would likely try to protect the country it views as a crucial buffer between it and the South Korean and U.S. militaries.

“I think [South Korea] is quite constrained,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group, a multinational, not-for-profit organization headquartered in Brussels. “There are no good, simple policy responses.”

Even the possibility of shutting off all trade and closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, just north of the Demilitarized Zone and where South Korean businesses have established factories to help the North’s economy, is risky. More than 1,000 South Koreans commute to the complex and work with about 42,000 North Koreans.

If South Korea would retaliate for the Cheonan and North Korea would respond by declaring a military emergency and shutting down the DMZ, South Korea could be left with no way to get its workers out, Pinkston said.

“You’ve lost a ship and 46 crew members, and then you have 1,000 hostages,” Pinkston said. “Then what does South Korea do?”

China’s role

China’s response to the incident has been “not very responsible” and “disrespectful” of its relationship with South Korea, a far bigger trading partner than impoverished North Korea.

“Here you have North Korea that’s taken the most provocative action since 1987, disrupting the peaceful status quo,” Cha said. “It’s all but certain that they did it, and yet the Chinese are acting like it didn’t happen.”

Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of Korean politics and foreign policy at Korea University, said South Korea’s best option is to push for United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, which would be symbolic but would have little effect on the already isolated nation.

The North is under U.N. sanctions for its May 25, 2009, nuclear test. Those sanctions include wide restrictions on the import and export of weapons, among other things.

Many believe more sanctions are unlikely because they would have to be approved by China, a member of the U.N. Security Council. That puts South Korea in a bind as it tries to respect the “special relationship” between China and North Korea, yet develop the strategic partnership it needs with the rising power, Yoo said.

“Without that, we cannot manage the security issues on the Korean peninsula,” he said.

Ryoo Kihl-jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said South Korea should send a polite but firm message to China that it respects the communist nation’s ties with North Korea but that South Korea needs its support in dealing with its neighbor.

Even if China would acknowledge that North Korea was responsible for sinking the Cheonan, Ryoo doesn’t expect China to behave any differently toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who visited China last week. Ryoo believes Kim and Chinese leaders talked about the possibility of development along the North Korea-Chinese border in a closed meeting that was unrelated to the Cheonan.

U.S support

Observers say the U.S. has handled the sinking of the Cheonan appropriately by publicly supporting its military ally and by providing analysts to a South Korean-led team investigating the sinking. If it turns out that North Korea was involved, the countries will likely step up their military alliance with naval exercises, increased surveillance and further development of military capabilities including anti-submarine warfare.

Pinkston said the U.S. and South Korea also are likely to delay the planned April 2012 transfer of wartime operational control to South Korea, after which the South would be responsible for leading its troops in a war. That responsibility now falls to the top U.S. general in South Korea.

Bigger issues

Regardless of any response South Korea may make against the North, the incident revealed command-and-control problems within South Korea’s military that will need fixing. President Lee Myung-bak learned about the sinking before top military officials did, Pinkston said.

It may also lead to a “shake up” in the navy, he said, which shouldn’t have let anything get close enough to the Cheonan to destroy it.

“There’s just no excuses,” Pinkston said. “It’s like letting a terrorist into JFK airport. You just can’t let it happen.”

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