The North Korean provocation on Yeonpyeong Island is the most serious in a long series of provocations going from the buildup of a nuclear program to the recent Cheonan boat sinking incident. It is an open aggression with civilian casualties. President Lee Myung-bak immediately reacted by threatening with strong military retaliation by South Korea. He fell into the trap laid by the North Korean regime and I hope he will understand this very soon.
Any military retaliation by South Korea would by necessity be limited and could not achieve any military objective. The US is not prepared to intervene to support a South Korean intervention, let alone risk further increase in its tensions with China. A South Korean military intervention would eventually only strengthen the bond between China and the North Korean regime. China would condemn South Korea and expand aid to the economically moribund North Korean regime. North Korea would stand to gain.
There is however a second trap laid by the North Korean regime. If South Korea reacts by reinstating the sunshine policy and toning down the condemnations of the North Korean regime, then it will appear weak and give the message that North Korea can bully South Korea into giving it the economic aid it needs to maintain its oppressive regime. There are many voices in South Korea advocating for such a move. They claim that the toughness showed by president Lee Myung-bak against North Korea has failed and led to a more aggressive stance in Pyongyang. By reestablishing ties with North Korea and providing economic help, the hope is that Pyongyang will feel less threatened and behave in a more peaceful way. This would be a big mistake. It would show to North Korean leaders that aggression and provocation can lead to concessions from Seoul and that bullying pays off.
What is then the best answer to the North Korean aggression? There should be strong international diplomatic pressure on China to openly and unambiguously condemn the aggression.
In the case of the Cheonan boat incident, China could abstain from condemning Pyongyang by pretexting that proofs of the North Korean aggression were needed. In the case of the Yeonpyong island attack, it is obvious to all that North Korea is the aggressor. China does not have this pretext anymore. The only pretext it could find is if there is retaliation from South Korea. If the South Korean government can stay calm, then North Korea will have fallen in its own trap. Getting China to condemn the aggression would further isolate North Korea. China understands that it is not in its best interest to unconditionally support the North Korean communist regime. It is interested in a nonnuclear North Korea and is not ready to lose diplomatic capital by supporting North Korean aggressions against South Korea. That is however not enough. China would prefer to stay silent. It must be made clear to China that there is a strong diplomatic cost of not condemning the North Korean aggression. Silence would be the equivalent of support. The more aggressive the North Korean regime is, the more pressure should be put on China by the international community to condemn North Korean aggressions and provocations. The more the North Korean regime loses open support from China the closer it is to its own doom.