WASHINGTON - The explosion and sinking of a South Korean war ship in the West
or Yellow Sea near the North Korean coast set off alarm bells in Washington and
Seoul. The question was whether North Korea was again making good on threats to
challenge South Korean control beneath the "northern limit line" (NLL) set by
the United Nations Command three years after the Korean War ended in 1953.
Now both South Korea and the US want to tamp down tensions, to find the
evidence that explains away the explosion, which claimed the lives of up to 46
of the ship's 104 sailors in the worst incident to occur in the disputed waters
off the west coast of North and South Korea since the Korean War. The last
anyone wants to hear is that North Korea was responsible.
The truth may be difficult to fathom for the simple reason that both South and
North Korea have mined the sea on either side of the NLL. Both presumably know
where they planted their mines, but they may have drifted in the strong
currents that roil the Yellow Sea. The North Koreans may not be sophisticated
enough to have deliberately set off a mine beneath the ship, and the waters are
not believed deep enough for a submarine to have found and fired on the target.
Whoever was responsible, the explosive was huge enough to tear the 1,200-ton
corvette Cheonan apart, trapping the 46 missing sailors in the aft of
the ship as it plunged to the bottom. The rest of the vessel apparently stayed
afloat long enough for the other sailors to get out, many of them plunging into
the sea before it too slipped below the waves. It was not until Monday, 69
hours after the blast on Friday, that South Korean navy vessels found the
missing aft portion, blown about 50 meters away from the main section.
The North Koreans, if they were in no way responsible, could not have asked for
a more fortuitous accident to frustrate their South Korean enemy.
The corvette has been plying a steady course through those waters for years, on
constant guard for North Korean intrusions below the NLL. South Korean
vigilance goes up as the spring crabbing season approaches and North Korean
fishermen are most willing to risk forays below the line.
It was in that atmosphere that the two of the fiercest naval battles in Korea's
modern history occurred in the same area, the first in June 1999 when South
Korean vessels turned back a North Korean attack, sending one of the North
Korean vessels fleeing and eventually sinking with at least 40 sailors aboard.
Then, in June 2002, on the final day of the soccer World Cup in South Korea,
when most South Koreans were glued to the TV watching their beloved Red Devils
battle to an unexpected fourth place, the North Koreans attacked again. This
time, six South Korean sailors were killed, and their patrol boat sank while
under tow to port. That vessel, eventually pulled to the surface, is now on
display at the Korean navy headquarters down the west coast at Pyongtaek, with
red circles marking the holes where the North Korean shells and bullets struck.
Tensions rose again last November when a North Korean vessel crossed the NLL
and a South Korean ship fired warning shots. After the North Koreans responded
with some shots of their own, the South Koreans opened up with all they had,
sending the vessel into retreat in flames back to port and presumably killing a
number of North Korean sailors.
The North Korean intrusion in November may have been timed to precede a visit
to the region by US President Barack Obama, who arrived in Seoul a week later
from Beijing. North Korea since then has issued frequent warnings of the
dangers of war breaking out in the area while denying as always the legitimacy
of the NLL and declaring the right of North Korean boats to go south of the
Those warnings, while not exactly ignored, have generally drawn shrugs even
from military and diplomatic experts. Officials in Washington and Seoul would
like nothing better than to be able to determine the cause of last Friday's
explosion, the worst disaster to befall the South Korean navy since 1974 when
159 sailors were drowned when their ship went down in a storm on the
All the US or South Korean commands have said so far, is that there was no sign
of "unusual" movements by the North Koreans - movement of troops on shore.
There were also no reports of live-fire artillery exercises of the sort that
got everyone on edge earlier this year.
The relative quiet on the North Korean southwest coast, however, does not rule
out the possibility that the North Koreans had seeded the water with mines - or
that the South Koreans had run over one of their own. The answer to the
question of whether the vessel was ripped asunder by a mine may become more
clear after a US rescue vessel named the Salvo uses its special
equipment for bringing up the bodies of trapped sailors - and also for sounding
out the exact dimensions of the damage.
Another possibility is that the vessel was torn apart by an explosion of its
own ammunition or fuel, or it could have collided with hidden rocks. Some of
the rescued sailors, however, reportedly ruled out the former while the latter
appeared unlikely considering the long experience of South Korean naval forces
in those waters. South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak, not hinting at North
Korean involvement, called only for a "quick and thorough investigation" into
As for the North Koreans, they have said nothing at all about the incident
while engaging in an array of intimidation tactics.
The most potentially intimidating was a North Korean military charge that South
Korea and the US were persisting in using the demilitarized zone between the
two Koreas for "inter-Korean confrontation". As reported by Pyongyang's Korean
Central News Agency, a military spokesman warned that more such acts might
result in "unpredictable incidents" and loss of lives.
The statement appeared a threat to the tourist trips conducted every day in
which buses carry thousands of people from hotels in Seoul to the truce village
of Panmunjom, 60 kilometers north of the capital.
It was at Panmunjom, in the Joint Security Area, where North Korean troops face
South Koreans and Americans, that the armistice ending the Korean War was
signed in July 1953. The North Koreans apparently are upset by plans for events
marking the 60th anniversary of the North Korean invasion of South Korea in
At the same time, North Korea has been conducting a close inspection of all the
facilities made by South Koreans at the tourist zone at the base of Mount
Kumkang. The inspection appears as part of an effort to intimidate South Korea,
which stopped all tourism to the zone after a South Korean woman was shot and
killed by North Korean soldiers when she wandered outside the area in July 2008
to look at the sunrise.
And on Friday, the day of the sinking of the ship, the Korean Central News
Agency quoted a North Korean spokesman as threatening "unprecedented nuclear
strikes" against South Korea and the US as punishment for "those who seek to
bring down the system" in North Korea. That statements seemed so routine as to
go virtually unnoticed.
Now, the nagging question remains whether the sinking of the corvette was an
act of war or, as the Americans and South Koreans would like to believe, an
accident. Until proven otherwise, North Korea is presumed not guilty.