Leading article: A landscape of limited options

Related Topics

The warning yesterday by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, about the "highly precarious" situation on and around the Korean peninsula is, if anything, an understatement. However strident the outrage in Pyongyang, last week's report by international investigators must banish all reasonable doubt that it was indeed a North Korean torpedo that sank a South Korean warship last March, killing 46 South Korean sailors.

As usual, the North's motives may only be guessed at. Perhaps the attack was calculated revenge for an earlier skirmish between patrol boats from the two countries close to the disputed maritime border between them, in which the North came off distinctly second best. It could have been intended to demonstrate that the ailing Kim Jong-il is still in firm control. Or it may simply be another example of Pyongyang's desire to show that whatever its economic and political weakness, it cannot be ignored.

But two things are certain. First, the options of South Korea and its key ally the US are extremely limited. Military retaliation might well lead to full-scale war on the peninsula, now involving a nuclear-armed North Korea. As for action at the United Nations, even if new sanctions could be agreed, they would probably have little effect. Meanwhile, Seoul's decision to halt inter-Korean trade, restrict North Korea's use of its sea lanes and resume "psychological warfare" against its northern neighbour, are probably the sternest response it could have taken, short of war. But these measures too will not force the North to change its ways.

And this leads to the second certainty – that in this crisis, as in previous ones over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programmes, the only country with genuine leverage is China, North Korea's largest trading partner and most important diplomatic protector. In the past, Beijing has balked at tough action to punish North Korea, and this time will probably be no different, despite the intense international pressure to do so, and the risks to China's relationship with the US.

It was telling that Mrs Clinton was speaking in Beijing, during the most extensive high level economic and security talks between the two countries in years. Vital issues are at stake, from currency and trade policies to the problem of Iran. But on North Korea, China's calculation cannot have changed. From Beijing's viewpoint, better the highly precarious status quo than an even more unstable North Korea on its border, or – worse still – a democratic reunited Korea, allied to the US.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Partner Manager - EMEA

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Partner Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Regional Sales Manager - OTE £100,000

£45000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Regional Sales Manager is re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company provides IT support...

Recruitment Genius: IT Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This manager is for a successfu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

We all have a problem with drink, not just Charles Kennedy

Simon Kelner
Jilly Cooper  

Jilly Cooper’s Riders: You actually can judge some books by their covers – so don’t meddle

Rosie Millard
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific