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Cheonan Update

May 7, 2010

Further to this previous post.

Recovered bow section of ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772)

On Saturday, April 24th, Korean news agencies broadcast live footage of the recovered bow section of the sunken vessel Cheonan being hauled out of the water by a floating crane and placed on a barge prior to being taken to a naval base in South Korea for further investigation. Preliminary examination of the wreckage has led to speculation that the vessel was not struck directly by a torpedo but may have been torn apart by a “bubble jet impact” caused by an explosion occurring near the hull. Despite growing suspicion, the investigation is ongoing and authorities have not yet officially announced that they believe North Korea is responsible. The Norks, for their part, have already released an official denial to international media in their own colourful manner –

“The puppet military warmongers, right-wing conservative politicians and the group of other traitors in South Korea are now foolishly seeking to link the accident with the north at any cost,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted an unnamed military commentator as saying. (Reuters)

A funeral service was held for the 46 dead sailors on Thursday, April 29th at Pyeongtaek naval base, home base for the Cheonan. Some 2,800 people were in attendance, including President Lee Myung-bak and other senior politicians, as Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Kim Sung-chan delivered a memorial address in which he said “We will never forgive whoever inflicted this great pain on us. We will track them down to the end and make them pay.” This sentiment was recently echoed by vocal Defence Minister Kim Tae-Young, who told Korean KBS TV that –

“Retaliation — whatever form it takes — must be done,”

“We must investigate the exact cause of the shipwreck to the last. And I think those responsible for killing our soldiers must pay the price.”

If it is proven that North Korea was behind the sinking of the Cheonan, retaliatory measures proposed have included a military strike against a North Korean submarine base suspected as a likely staging area for the attack. Other proposals raised have been a naval blockade of the same base or other parts of the NK coast (with necessary U.S. navy assistance), large-scale maritime military exercises near the Northern Limit Line that include the firing of anti-submarine weapons backed with airpower (with or without U.S. military assistance), and further dismantling of the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North started by President Kim Dae-jung’s administration in 1998.

The trouble with all of the above is that, quite simply, South Korea is reluctant to rock the boat. As much of the developed world continues to struggle with the financial crisis, the South Korean economy is recovering fairly well. Predictions for economic growth in 2010 expect to see the GDP increase by 5% and exports and foreign investment remain healthy. All of that would be gravely jeopardized by a significant escalation of military conflict on the Korean peninsula and some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that President Lee’s administration may therefore look to cover up any unpalatable truths as to who or what was behind the sinking of the Cheonan. Some conspiracy theories to this end have already circulated, alleging cover-ups of friendly fire, missing minutes from communications recordings, etc. but they are little more than the usual prattle of online cranks and weirdoes.

The U.S. has expressed public reluctance for any military escalation with Hillary Clinton stating on April 22nd –

“There is no talk of war; there is no action or miscalculation that could provoke a response that might lead to conflict. That’s not in anyone’s interest.”

This comment was not well received in the Republic of Korea and required some additional post hoc spin. The U.S. State Department later clarified that the Secretary of State had intended her comments to be directed at North Korea and was not downplaying the severity of the attack and the resultant deaths of South Korean servicemen.

Although still lacking specifics on exactly what kind of action will be taken in response, President Lee Myung-bak has since spoken of the need for extensive reform of the South Korean military in order to meet the challenge of similar asymmetric military threats in future. Such attacks from the North, however, are not without precedent. North Korean agents had previously attempted to assassinate the South Korean president Park Chung-hee in the 1968 guerrilla raid on the presidential Blue House. They also tried to assassinate President Chun Doo-hwan in a bomb attack that killed South Korean cabinet ministers during an official visit to Rangoon, Burma in 1983. This was followed by the bombing of a passenger airliner in 1987 when North Korean agents blew up Korean Air Flight 858 over the Andaman Sea in 1987. Although all of these incidents provoked justifiable outrage, they never resulted in any escalation of conflict on the Korean peninsula.

At this stage, it is still a waiting game with the South Korean government attempting to tread a fine line between appearing firm and resolute in their promised response whilst proceeding tentatively and carefully in the investigation. More to follow, most likely.

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