It's now almost two weeks since the Republic of Korea navy corvette Cheonan
mysteriously exploded and sank close to Baengnyeong, South Korea's
northwestern-most island, late on Friday night, March 26. Fifty-eight of its
104 man crew were swiftly plucked from the chilly waters, but 46 drowned -
although only two bodies had been found as of April 8.
Since then 10 more have died: one navy diver, and nine fishermen on a boat
commandeered to help the search after it was apparently in collision with a
Cambodian-registered freighter. The original explosion was powerful enough to
tear this substantial vessel - 88 meters long, 1,200 tonnes - in half. Strong
currents, which are still hampering investigations, swept the bow section fully
six kilometers southeastward from the stern. Fortunately
both are in fairly shallow waters; meaning salvage of the wreck should be
feasible though may take weeks.
So what happened? Summoned to a BBC studio for instant punditry, still
struggling to take in what little we knew in those first hours, I feared the
worst. I mean, just look at the map. Baengnyeong was in Southern hands when the
Korean War ended - only with an armistice: there is still no peace treaty - in
1953, but geographically it's an outlier: far from the South Korean mainland,
nearer to Pyongyang than to Seoul, and close to the North Korean coast.
And indeed, North Korea claims these waters. Pyongyang never accepted the
Northern Limit Line (NLL), unilaterally drawn by the United Nations command to
reflect the post-1953 status quo in these west coast waters. Its own
counter-proposal simply extends the land-based Military Demarcation line
westwards into the sea. This would put Baengnyeong and another South
Korean-held island, Daecheong, inside Democratic People's Republic of Korea
(DPRK) waters - so they cannot be serious; can they?
Well, serious enough to make a regular fuss - and take the odd nasty potshot.
The past decade has seen three brief but bloody naval skirmishes in these
waters, the latest only last November. In most, the North's Korean People's
Army (KPA) came off worse, as you'd expect: their aging patrol boats are no
match for the South's state-of-the-art gunships.
In a new twist, since late January the KPA have been firing volleys of
artillery shells into these seas – albeit with due notice to shipping, and on
their own side of the NLL. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) fired back at
first, but then decided this was business as usual, Pyongyang-style.
Sinking the Cheonan, by contrast, is very much not business as usual.
That would be a sharp, if still carefully calculated and calibrated, escalation
of tensions by Kim Jong-il - or whoever could give such an order. Might it be
his hot-headed number three son Kim Jong-eun, whose opaque succession was
reportedly put on hold last year because the headstrong lad, whose mettle in
general pleases his dad, went too far and started meddling in military matters?
Don't mention the North
Perish the thought. That at least is the official line in Seoul, and you can
understand why. When first news of the sinking broke, Wall Street was still
trading. Briefly, both the South Korean won and the overall Dow Jones stock
index dipped - before swiftly recovering, as the markets decided it was a false
alarm: nothing to worry about. The two Koreas were not after all at war again,
so we could all go home and enjoy the weekend. The story vanished from the
world's front pages and wire reports as swiftly as it had briefly surfaced
Except of course in South Korea, where an increasingly irate public - not least
the families of the young conscripts who died in the Cheonan - demands
to know what really happened. So here is my take, which at this stage is
obviously speculative until more is revealed.
I'd love to be wrong, but I think North Korea did it. They have the capacity,
with submarines and semi-submersibles, both armed with torpedoes. And they have
the motive too. Beset by problems of their own making - a delicate succession,
plus the backlash from an amazingly stupid and vicious currency "reform" (aka
stealing everyone's paltry savings; another story) - they are also furious with
South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak.
Rightly or wrongly, Lee ended a decade of Southern "Sunshine" policy. The new
line is no more freebies for the North - including badly needed food for a
hungry populace - until the Dear Leader gets serious about giving up nukes,
Libya-style. Which patently he never will, since unlike Muammar Gaddafi, Kim
Jong-il has no other cards to play. So frankly this is a non-starter.
Ignore us at your peril
Despite rumors of secret talks about a third inter-Korean summit, basically Lee
is ignoring North Korea. Quite deliberately so. Tired of Seoul's past
preoccupation with the ingrate recidivist sibling snarling in its backyard, Lee
seeks a global stage worthier of both South Korea's status - the world's ninth
largest exporter last year, ahead of the United Kingdom - and his own
ambitions. Chairing the Group of 20 (G-20), whose summit Seoul will host in
November, suits him nicely. North Korea can stew - unless Kim Jong-il throws in
the towel and comes crawling.
Bad move. Plausibility is not proof, but it would be just like North Korea to
send a vicious reminder that it is not about to lie down or go away - but on
the contrary has the capacity to rain on Lee's G-20 parade, unless he shows
more respect. Why wouldn't they?
Which of course puts Lee in a quandary, and - I contend - explains the very
interesting and quite skilful, if ultimately unconvincing and unsustainable,
way his government has handled this potentially very dangerous incident.
Grieving relatives apart, the South Korean public should stop emoting and think
coolly about the likely sequence of events. Again I speculate.
First, imagine the immediate moment. It's late at night, it's dark, the news is
confused, but a ship has exploded and is sinking. Do you fire back? We know
they did. The Cheonan's sister corvette Sokcho, which had been
patrolling with it, rather than join the rescue steamed north and blasted
something on its radar. A flock of birds, they now say, but doubts persist;
fueled by reports that two Northern submarines were in the vicinity at the
time. (Lucky it was only birds and not a KPA flotilla, if the North really
didn't do it. Might have started a war!)
Be very, very careful
Both naval commanders and their political masters had very good reason to be
cautious. Not only because it wasn't clear if this was actually an enemy
attack, but because of the extreme danger of getting it wrong and
over-reacting. The fact that Korea has been at peace for over half a century
should never blind us to the fact that the ironically named Demilitarized Zone
(DMZ) remains the planet's most heavily armed frontier. With almost 1.8 million
troops and vast arsenals of weaponry ranged against each other, it might only
take a misapprehension to unleash apocalypse. The KPA has 10,000 heavy
artillery pieces trained on Seoul, some with chemical shells; not to mention
hundreds of missiles. It doesn't bear thinking about.
Which is why the president's Blue House would rather you not think about it,
and they've been pretty successful. Quick to deny any North Korean role (while
never quite ruling it out), Seoul's spin-doctors set to work. First they
focused on the quest to rescue anyone who might have survived - long after it
was clear that they couldn't possibly have. It was cruel to keep false hopes
alive, but politically it did the trick of distracting the populace for several
A second tack, essential to defusing any sense of crisis, was to put out
alternative theories. Could the Cheonan have run aground or hit a reef?
May its own munitions have exploded? An oldish craft, built in 1989, might it
be unseaworthy as some family members suggested?
Well, maybe. But none of this sounds very convincing. It was getting harder to
deny that something had hit the Cheonan, even before the survivors -
whose sequestering for nearly two weeks was itself suspicious - confirmed on
April 7 that an external blast was to blame.
But what? Enter the mine hypothesis. An old mine - either the South's or the
North's, left over from the Korean War or soon after - may have come adrift and
floated into the unfortunate Cheonan's path. Or perhaps been floated? Or
maybe not a mine, but a torpedo?
Defense minister goes off-message
Those last two variants come from the ROK Defense Ministry (MND), which has
struggled to stay on the same page as the rest of the government. Defense
Minister Kim Tae-young has form as a blurter-outer; he has twice in the past
warned that if facing an imminent Northern attack, the South would strike
first. (Of course it would, but it's not diplomatic to go around saying so -
unless you believe the folks in Pyongyang may actively need reminding of this.)
So while others were downplaying any Northern role - the latest such soother
being USFK commander General Walter Sharp on April 6 - Kim Tae-young, himself a
military man, has in effect broken ranks with his colleagues. Already on March
29 he told a National Assembly hearing that "North Korea may have intentionally
floated underwater mines to inflict harm on us". Four days later, again in
parliament, Kim changed his tune and upped the ante. Was it a mine or a
torpedo, he was asked? He plumped for the torpedo as the likelier cause.
For this the Blue House has given him a bollocking. The Chosun Ilbo, a
conservative Seoul daily, on April 6 published a picture taken from behind of
the hapless minister reading what seems to be a handwritten memo warning him to
stay on message. This instructs him to:
... please make sure to say
that you will know only after the sunken ship is salvaged as we have
maintained, and that the military is investigating all possibilities and you
are not leaning toward any possibility ... The VIP [President Lee] wants you to
say that the two submarines being unaccounted for means that the military
didn't identify their whereabouts, that the military is currently investigating
their disappearance, and that as for their possible link to the shipwreck
[there is no] direct evidence or clue. 
You can imagine MND
must be seething - especially the navy, after a fourth attack (if they know it
was, but are forbidden to say so) when it is always their men who are
sacrificed. To the unreconstructed South's military mind, the sunshine era was
bad enough: damn pinkos, soft on the commies, forcing us to bite our lips and
not retaliate. But with Lee, order was supposed to be restored: good chap, one
of us. So why is even he taking such a soft line?
For very good reason, is the answer. Kim Tae-young's insubordination shows why
it is high time South Korea followed best practice and started appointing
civilians rather than top brass to run the defense ministry. For the wider
national interest dictates calm and prudence, even if need be through gritted
teeth and perhaps knowing there is more here than meets the eye.
Reassuring the markets
South Korea is one of the world's leading economies, but it is vulnerable. A
second Korean war would be so horrendous that any responsible leader, no matter
how provoked, must take every step to avoid such an apocalypse. Restraint is
sound statesmanship, not cowardice.
Even short of outright conflict, in today's globalized world it wouldn't take
much for foreign investors to stampede for the exits if they thought the long
Cold War in Korea was about to heat up even a little. The morning after the Cheonan
sank, Seoul's Ministry of Strategy and Finance sent letters to the three top
ratings agencies - Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch - saying the
incident would not affect the economy. As it happen, all three are finishing up
annual reviews of South Korea's sovereign credit rating. In the past
geopolitical risk on the peninsula has sometimes rattled them, as well it might
if it were true. So it is manifestly in Seoul's interests to calm the waters,
as they have succeeded in doing - for now.
But what next? In a fractious democracy, it is getting harder for the
spin-doctors to keep the unanswered questions at bay. Already every possible
conspiracy theory is being aired on the Korean blogosphere, which for all its
universality - in the world's most wired society, and one of its best educated
- is not renowned for the prevalence of calm and reasoned debate.
Once the Cheonan's stern is salvaged, the likely spectacle of dozens of
young ratings found drowned in their bunks, or desperately trying to escape,
will inspire a further outpouring of grief and rage - and calls for revenge. It
may get harder to keep the obvious prime suspect out of the picture. With
provincial and local elections upcoming on June 2, Lee - whose whole shtick is
as a can-do man of action, nicknamed "the bulldozer" from his years running
Hyundai's construction business - can hardly afford to look weak or
vacillating. But still less can he afford to put South Korea's economy, or that
precious G-20 summit, at risk.
So wouldn't it be convenient if eventual investigations of the hull prove
inconclusive, so the Cheonan tragedy can be filed away permanently as a
mystery? Maybe it is. I sincerely hope these speculations are wrong. Even if
Pyongyang is innocent of this particular outrage, the fact remains that Lee
Myung-bak hasn't a clue how to handle the North. His cold shoulder patently
isn't working; it just leaves a vacuum which Beijing is only too happy to step
in and fill. Lee is losing North Korea to China: what price reunification? But
that is another story.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and
modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and
broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has
followed North Korea for over 40 years.