ROK Navy Ship Sinks Near NLL; Updates: 46 Sailors Missing, ROK Gov’t Downplays Initial Reports of North Korean Attack

Original Post, 26 March 2010, ~0800:

800px-baekryong_location_2svg.pngThis from Yonhap. It’s not clear if the ship is sinking or has already sunk:

A South Korean Navy ship with 104 crew members on board was sinking off the Seoul-controlled island of Baengnyeong in the Yellow Sea, near North Korea, Navy officials said Friday.

The 1,500-ton ship sank between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. near the island, but the cause of the accident was unknown, the officials said. A rescue operation was underway, they added.

Reuters reports:

A South Korean naval vessel with more than 100 aboard was sinking on Friday in waters near North Korea and Seoul was investigating whether it was hit in a torpedo attack by the North, South Korean media said.

Broadcaster SBS said many South Korean sailors on the stricken vessel were feared dead.

South Korea’s YTN TV network said the government was investigating whether the sinking was due to a torpedo attack by the North, and Yonhap news agency said the Seoul government had convened an emergency meeting of security-related ministers.

The South Koreans are apparently shooting back. [Update: Or shooting at something.]

Assuming this is what it appears to be — a calculated North Korean attack — look for President Lee to avoid escalating a military conflict that looks increasingly like a desperate grasp from a dying regime. A more statesmanlike and more likely response would be for President Lee to simply cut off all trade with, and aid to, North Korea until Kim Jong Il apologizes for the attack.

It will be interesting to see what the United States does at this moment of need to stand by South Korea and show the North that provocations have consequences. A mealy-mouthed expression of concern from a State Department spokesman won’t do it.

Update: Here’s a picture of the ship.

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President Lee’s office is not confirming that this was a North Korean attack:

“For now, it is not certain whether North Korea is related” to the incident, Cheong Wa Dae spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye said. “President Lee ordered the military to do its best to rescue the soldiers.”

“[F]inding the truth (behind the incident) is important, but saving our soldiers is more important,” the president was quoted as saying. According to the Defense Ministry, 58 of the 104 crew members on board have been rescued so far.

Update: Remember the Cheonan. She was a 1,200 ton corvette.

Update: Statements from the South Korean government now are clearly downplaying the theory that this was a North Korean attack. It seems to me that an examination of the hole in the bottom of the ship would quickly confirm whether the explosion came from inside or outside the hull.

It might just be that the South Koreans don’t know if they ran over one of their own mines. On the other hand, it might also be that President Lee does know and still hasn’t decided what he’s going to do about it. He might be hiding behind those doubts to give people a chance to calm down before he announces his decision.

Update, 27 Mar 2010, 1000: As the scale of the tragedy starts to sink in, there are no answers as to the cause of the disaster. One way or another, the incident already shows signs of being heavily politicized.

An explosion at the rear of the Cheonan shut down its engine, wiped out power and caused the ship to sink a little over three hours later, the Joint Chiefs said. The exact cause was unclear, but North Korea did not appear to be to blame, officials said.

A survivor, Staff Sgt. Shin Eun-chong, 24, told relatives he was on night duty when he heard a huge boom behind him that split the ship apart. The vessel started tilting, and his glasses fell off his face as he hit the deck, relatives at a naval base in Pyeongtaek told The Associated Press. [….]

“Yells and screams filled the air,” witness Kim Jin-ho, a seaman who was on a passenger ship bound for Baengnyeong, told cable news channel YTN. “Marines on deck were desperately shouting: ‘Save me!'”

Despite early fears of an attack, there was no immediate indication that North Korea — which lies within sight about 10 miles (17 kilometers) from Baengnyeong — was to blame, the Joint Chiefs said. Still, troops were maintaining “solid military readiness,” Vice Defense Minister Jang Soo-man said. [AP]

President Lee is calling for a quick and thorough investigation into the cause of the explosion that sank the ship. South Korean officials continue to depress speculation that this was a North Korean attack.

Speaking privately to Yonhap News Agency, however, multiple officials at Cheong Wa Dae said based on what is known so far, chances seem low that the North is involved in the case, citing the relatively long distance between the maritime border and the scene of the incident, about 1.8 kilometers southwest of Baengnyeong Island, home to more than 4,000 residents, mostly fishermen and their families.

“It is hard to say for sure now, but chances appear to be slim that North Korea was related,” a senior official said on the condition of anonymity. “If North Korea’s attack really caused the sinking, it means there is a serious loophole in our defense system.” [Yonhap]

Personally, I do not find these statements to be persuasive. If this was indeed an attack, it’s unlikely to have been the result of an attack by a conventional warship, given that the North Korean Navy has no doubt learned that its conventional surface navy is no match for the ROK Navy.

On the other hand, the loss of the U.S.S. Cole taught us that even the most advanced warships are vulnerable to unconventional attack. If — again, if — this was an attack, it’s far more likely to have been the work of one of North Korea’s midget submarines or small semi-submersible craft, like the one the ROK Navy sank in December 1998, off the southwestern coast of South Korea. We know that North Korea’s submarines have penetrated ROK Navy defenses before, and we can presume that its semi-submersible craft have, too.

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These craft are designed for infiltration and sabotage missions, and it seems plausible that one could have gone undetected up to the moment that the sailors aboard the Cheonan reportedly opened fire on something (Baekreong islanders reported hearing “loud artillery firing,” which the Navy later dismissed as the sound of rescue flares being fired). But then again, maybe it really is commonplace for crewmen aboard ROK Navy ships to open fire on flocks of birds.

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One thing I will not claim is expertise in naval architecture, but I’d personally be surprised to learn that warships are built with volatile ordnance stored below their engine rooms. On rare occasions, of course warships do just explode all by themselves. The U.S.S. Iowa and the Kursk both did, though probably for reasons that are very different from whatever happened to the Cheonan.

One advantage the investigators will have is that the capsized ship has not sunken completely to the bottom, and its hull is within easy reach of Navy divers.

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That will allow the Navy to determine in very short order whether the explosion of the Cheonan was caused by an accidental detonation aboard the ship. The force of the blast will have bent the metal around the hole in the hull either inward or outward, so it should be a very simple matter to determine whether the explosion came from inside or outside. (See, e.g., this photograph of the hole blown in the U.S.S. Cole from the outside.) If the explosion came from the inside, this was almost certainly an accident, though sabotage is always a possibility. If it came from outside, then the only likely accidental cause is a South Korean mine — either because the captain strayed off course, or because a mine broke free from its moorings. Either cause should be simple enough to rule out based on the ship’s course and the ROK Navy’s accounting for its mines, something that ought to be meticulous in an area so heavily trafficked by warships and fishing boats.

Finally, all of this comes in the context of North Korea’s increased threats against the South in recent days, weeks, and months. The North has frequently provoked fights in the Yellow Sea to get the attention of South Korean presidents. As the North’s rhetoric has reached hysterical heights, South Koreans have learned to mostly ignore them. Maybe the North realized that it needed to regain some credibility.

The North Korean Navy certainly had other motives; chiefly, its likely desire for revenge after the beating it took in the last battle in November 2009, when a North Korean patrol boat got itself hosed down with a 20mm gatling gun. We saw this pattern with the sinking of the Chamsuri 357, which came three years after the ROK Navy sank one North Korean warship and severely damaged several others in another battle. The latter incident closely followed the aforementioned sinking of the semi-submersible off Yosu in December 1998. (All three incidents happened during my own tour in Korea.) For North Korean military officers, unavenged defeats are more than a loss of face. They can be grounds for a purge.

All of this is only circumstantial evidence, obviously. In due course, we will know much more than we know now. What we know now is that this is a life-changing tragedy for the families of 46 young sailors who stood guard for the security of their country.

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