A South Korean commission, augmented by experts from the U.S., Britain, Australia and Sweden, has unanimously concluded that the warship Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean-made torpedo fired by a North Korean midget submarine.

Now what? By any measure, this unprovoked attack was an act of war, but South Korea and its allies have few good options.

The South Korean capital, Seoul, and its 10 million people are within range of the artillery North Korea has massed on the border and which it regularly threatens to use. Indeed, a North Korean military spokesman said that any retaliation, be it sanctions or a military strike, will be answered with "all-out war."

It is a war that North Korea would eventually lose, but at horrendous cost to both sides, and no sane leader wants to goad its erratic and bellicose dictator, Kim Jong Il, into finding out.

Even more sanctions — including economic embargoes, assuming China would go along — might cause his Stalinist regime to collapse. Neither China nor South Korea wants that to happen, for fear of being overrun by millions of desperate and starving refugees.

The default position seems to be to wait for Kim's successor and hope he's more amenable to reason and peaceful relations. Waiting for Kim to exit the stage and hoping for something better is not wholly unreasonable. Kim is 69, appears to be in poor health and is said to be trying to engineer the passage of his dictatorship, which he inherited from his father, on to one of his own sons.

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The problem with letting this provocation go unanswered is that it invites further provocations. The solution, as with all North Korean problems, revolves around China, whose supplies of food and fuel keep the regime alive.

China has kept its distance from the whole sinking incident. It waited a month before expressing sympathy for the 46 South Korean sailors who were killed. And its reaction to the commission findings of North Korean culpability was to term the whole affair "unfortunate." (The North Korean explanation is that South Korea staged the sinking itself in order to blame North Korea.)

If China is not going to use its direct leverage, it could at least do two other things: Strongly warn Kim that if he gets himself into a war, China is not riding to North Korea's rescue, as it did in 1950; and commit to not veto whatever sanctions the U.N. Security Council agrees on.

True, sanctions might cause the regime to implode — and that's reason enough for planning to begin now for the inevitable day when it does.

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