SEOUL - Ask the South Korean general in charge of the investigation of the
sinking of the navy corvette Cheonan in March how to stop a North Korean
submarine from staging torpedo attacks, and he's got a simple response.
"Defensive measures are very difficult and limited," said Lieutenant General
Park Jing-e in response to Asia Times Online's question at the show-and-tell on
Thursday put on by South Korea's Defense Ministry on the episode in the West or
Yellow Sea in which 46 sailors lost their lives. "The most effective way to
destroy the submarine is to destroy it when it's identified at the port."
After the submarine leaves the port, said the general in a frank
admission of the dangers and ultimate frustration, "it is very difficult to
Not that the general's response means South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak is
considering a strike on North Korean bases among the "resolute
counter-measures" that he vaguely promised while Park and the co-leader of the
investigation, a professor from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and
Technology, were presenting proof positive of North Korea's role.
Now that the evidence is out in the open, in the form of two ugly pieces of
metal that comprised the motor, shaft and propeller of the torpedo, the next
phase of the Cheonan incident is sure to devolve into extended palaver,
recriminations, rhetoric and, of course, a demand for United Nations sanctions.
The episode will no doubt go down as one of the worst in the long history of
the uneasy armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, but no one thinks
President Lee wants to upset the economic apple cart while South Korea is
riding high. He's got the Group of 20 summit of global leaders to host in
November, and he's not likely to want to risk an armed conflagration that might
just force the cancelation of what may be the crowning moment of his
In that spirit, South Korea has mounted a global campaign to whip up diplomatic
support that included a telephoned expression of total support from US
President Barack Obama to Lee and briefings for foreign ambassadors in advance
of the elaborate explanation of exactly how the North Koreans did it.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the whole show at the Defense Ministry
was the revelation that investigators did not actually dig up the smoking gun
in the incident until five days ago, on May 15. It was only then that a South
Korean dredging vessel, a civilian craft, detected the metal at a depth of 47
meters and pulled it to the surface.
That done, identification of the torpedo as North Korean was easy. The torpedo
was the same model as one that South Korean naval forces found in the Yellow
Sea seven years ago, and it had North Korean markings. The residue of the
explosives was the same as that on the stern portion of the ship that went
down, with the victims killed not by explosives themselves but by shock waves
from a blast a few meters below the ship.
Hard though it may be to argue with such details, they undoubtedly will not
satisfy those who want to construe the explosion as friendly-fire incident
involving South Korean or American forces. North Korea wasted no time in
blasting South Korea's claim, branding President Lee "a traitor" and the charge
"a fabrication". If South Korea retaliated, the North warned in a rhetorical
outburst that was not deemed surprising, the result would be "all-out war".
The response from the North's National Defense Commission, the heart of power
of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, who rules as commission chairman, did carry one
surprise that may or may not be significant. The North said it wanted to send a
delegation of its own to the South to carry out its own investigation.
That gesture is sure to get lost in demands that North Korea channel the
request through the Military Armistice Commission, set up under the truce that
ended the Korean War in July 1953, but it does raise intriguing questions.
What if South Korea actually said, fine, come on down? Is North Korea really
prepared to send a team? And what would they say or think when photographed
peering at the fragments of the torpedo - and the wreckage of the Cheonan?
Any chance they would return to the North bearing the news for Kim Jong-il
that, yes, we actually did fire the torpedo?
No one will get the answers to such questions since North Korea obviously is
not going to risk the fallout from an investigation whose details, supported by
experts from the US, Britain, Australia and Sweden as well as the Koreans, is
by now exhaustive in detail. Beyond the technicalities of how a torpedo
explodes and what happens when it does, the investigation also revealed the
constant threat posed by North Korea's expertise in submarine warfare.
"A small submarine is an underwater weapon system," said Yoon Duk-ryong, the
retired professor and co-leader of the investigation along with General Park.
"A few small submarines and a mother ship supporting them left a North Korean
naval base in the West [Yellow] Sea two to three days prior to the attack and
returned to port two to three days after the attack."
Those submarines, were just a small portion of a fleet of about 70 submarines,
said the report, including 20 weighing 1,800 tons, 40 weighing 300 tons and 10
"midget submarines", weighing 130 tons. It was likely one of those midget
submarines that fired the torpedo that split the 1,200-ton Cheonan in
two, sending it to the bottom in a minute.
It was not until the dredging ship came up with the incriminating proof,
however, that investigators matched the parts to what they knew of the type of
torpedo that North Korea is offering client states, notably Iran.
Among these were "bladed, contra-rotating propellers, propulsion motor and a
steer section", said Yoon's report. They "perfectly match the schematics" of
the torpedo included "introductory brochures provided to foreign countries by
North Korea for export purposes".
The markings in Hangul, Korean script, read the Hangul equivalent of "No 1" in
English, and are "consistent with the markings of a previously obtained North
Korean torpedo". Just in case anyone's thinking the torpedo was an old Soviet
model or a newer Chinese one, the report added that "Russian and Chinese
torpedoes are marked in their respective languages".
In the end, said the report, "The evidence points overwhelmingly to the
conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine." There was,
it said "no other plausible explanation".
All of which may be of great interest but of less than great impact if the
Chinese refuse to buy it. A Chinese diplomat was notably absent from the
Defense Ministry briefing to which diplomatic and military officials were in
attendance. All a Chinese official in Beijing was reported as saying was the
whole affair was "unfortunate" - a response that Korean officials find more
than a little upsetting.
The words of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, a soft-lining former foreign
minister for South Korea who led its attempts at reconciliation with the North
in previous government in Seoul, were not all that encouraging. He called the
investigation "troubling", not exactly a call for UN action.
Under the circumstances, all General Park could say when asked what the South
would do to prevent further attacks was that "our plan is to reinforce
submarine measures by establishing a submarine detection system in areas that
are vulnerable to such infiltration". That response was less than reassuring,
considering that he also acknowledged, in this case, "We were not able to
expect that a submarine once seaborne was going to infiltrate our waters."
This is a standoff in which it's wise to expect the unexpected. The sense,
though, is the North has made a fundamental point. There's not much South Korea
will do beside engage in threats and words while China makes up for the losses
in trade, aid and diplomatic sympathy.