South Korea Seeking Solid Evidence to Explain Warship Disaster

By Patrick Goodenough | April 23, 2010 | 4:41 AM EDT

South Korean elementary school students place flowers next to portraits of the deceased sailors from the South Korean naval vessel <i>Cheonan</i> during a memorial event in Seoul on Thursday, April 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

( – Four weeks after a mysterious explosion sunk a South Korean naval ship near the disputed maritime border with North Korea, salvage crews prepared Friday to raise the remaining segment of the vessel in the hope that it may shed further light on a tragedy which many South Koreans are blaming on their communist neighbor.

Although Seoul has not directly accused North Korea of responsibility for the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, conservative President Lee Myung-bak this week pledged to get to the bottom of the incident and “deal resolutely with the results.”

Earlier, the chief investigator into the disaster announced that an “external explosion” rather than something onboard the vessel likely caused the Cheonan to split in two before sinking in the Yellow Sea on March 26. Forty-six crew members died or are listed as missing, and 58 others were rescued. North Korea has denied involvement.

A Korea expert said Thursday that if North Korea is found to be responsible, it would be the most serious act of its kind since Pyongyang’s agents blew up a South Korean airliner in 1987.

The bombing of KAL 858 over the Indian Ocean killed 115 passengers and crew, and prompted the U.S. two months later to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that held for the next two decades.

The stern of the salvaged South Korean naval ship <i>Cheonan</i>. (AP Photo/Yonhap, Im Hun-jung)

The stern of the stricken 1,200-ton Cheonan was raised by giant crane last week and the bow will be lifted on Friday or Saturday. Investigators, including experts from the U.S. and Australia, are waiting to get access to both sections in the search for more clues.

Opinion polls indicate that a large majority of South Koreans suspect the North. Speculation has centered on a mine or submarine-launched torpedo. Unconfirmed reports have emerged saying military intelligence officials warned earlier this year that the North was preparing attacks involving mini-submarines whose handlers would either mount suicide missions against naval targets, or escape before their timed devices exploded.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan has said that if North Korea turned out to be behind the sinking, Seoul would take the matter to the U.N. Security Council.

Others are suggesting stronger measures. A former defense minister and army chief told the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper that South Korea should consider military action, including a blockade or direct strike, if the North was found to be responsible. Kim Jang-soo argued that North Korean provocations continued precisely because Seoul has failed to respond firmly to a series of terror attacks over the past four decades.

In an apparent bid to lower the temperature, South Korean president Lee said Friday that the government was not making “assumptions” about the incident, but was “focusing on investigating it thoroughly and scientifically,” the Yonhap agency reported.

Earlier, in a characteristically bellicose statement denying involvement, Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency quoted a “military commentator” as saying that “puppet military warmongers, right-wing conservative politicians and … other traitors” were trying to link North Korea to the sinking.

“The ruckus kicked up by the puppet authorities while peddling the story is designed to stir up the atmosphere of international sanctions against [North Korea] and increase pressure upon it in various aspects,” it said.

Pondering possible motives

The sinking occurred in an area that has seen previous hostility, most recently last November, when at least one North Korean sailor in a patrol boat was reportedly killed after an exchange of fire with a South Korean ship.

Revenge for that incident is one of the suggested motives for an attack on the Cheonan, circulating in South Korean media.

Another view, by a top North Korea defector now living in the South, was that Kim Jong-il ordered the attack to provoke a response from the South, in the hope that an armed confrontation would cause economic turmoil and divide the public. Hwang Jang-yop warned against rising to the bait.

(Hwang, the former secretary of Kim’s ruling Workers Party, in 1997 became the most senior North Korean to defect from the reclusive Stalinist state, and now heads a group called the Committee for Democratization of North Korea. He was recently the target of a foiled assassination plot by North Korean agents posing as defectors.)

Victor Cha, who holds the Korea Chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, put forward other possible theories Thursday for a North Korean attack, including “a form of coercive diplomacy” aimed at forcing Lee’s government into bilateral talks which could lead to aid for the North; a demonstration of enhanced naval capabilities; or “perhaps most ominously … a manifestation of internal leadership turmoil in Pyongyang and the pursuit of a hard-line external policy.”

If the North was found to have been responsible, Cha said it would highlight how much security conditions have changed since Washington and Seoul in 2007 negotiated transferring wartime operational control (OPCON) from the U.S. to South Korea by 2012. (The move was an initiative of Lee’s liberal predecessor, President Roh Moo-hyun.)

In this photo released by KCNA, North Koreans lay flowers in front of a statue of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, on the “Day of the Sun,” April 15, 2010. (AP Photo/KCNA via Korea News Service)

“This act, Kim Jong-il’s stroke, and the May 2009 second North Korean nuclear test provides enough justification for Seoul and Washington to reconsider the 2012 timetable for transfer of wartime OPCON,” Cha said.

American troops have been stationed on the peninsula since the Korea War, which ended in 1953 with a armistice. In the absence of a formal peace agreement, the two Koreas remain officially at war, and the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) are deployed to help defend the ally against aggression from the North.

The USFK operates alongside the South Korea’s armed forces, and the USFK commander doubles as head of the Combined Forces Command (CFC), an integrated military structure.

The South Korean military has operational control during peacetime, but in the event of war, it cedes OPCON to the CFC commander.

South Korean media reported Wednesday that, since the Cheonan incident, the allies have agreed to a delay in OPCON transfer. But the government in Seoul denied that any delay had been discussed.

‘Day of the Sun’

Meanwhile, more rhetoric from Pyongyang came in the form of a KCNA-run commentary Thursday responding to a joint South Korean-U.S. military live fire exercise held a week earlier. It said the “saber-rattling goes to prove once again that the U.S. and the South Korean conservatives are pushing ahead with the preparations for a war of aggression.”

The commentary was especially scathing about the fact the exercise took place on April 15, the anniversary of the birth of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, marked by North Koreans as the “Day of the Sun.”

“They must be well aware that this Day of the Sun is significantly commemorated not only by the Koreans but by all other progressives,” it said.

The commentary went on to vow to “blow up the stronghold of the aggressors, should they dare ignite a war of aggression,” adding that “they would be well advised to behave themselves, bearing this in mind.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow