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     May 21, 2010
Seoul firing blanks at North Korea
By Donald Kirk

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 detect".

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 presidency.

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.

Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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