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.

rok-navy-ship.jpg

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.

semi_submarine.jpg

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.

diagram.jpg

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.

bottom-of-ship-2.jpg

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.

mother-of-sailor.jpg

27 comments

  1. The_Incredible_HUK says:

    The timing is not surprising. Just this week the DPRK sent delegates for a joint North-South commemoration in China to remember Ahn Jung-Gun. Not that this gesture would’ve generated a new level of goodwill, but it’s typical of them to shake your hand and to fire at you virtually one day after the other.

    The Korea Herald’s English website states there is a chance the ROK vessel’s own explosives may have exploded, but I cannot help but think the DPRK is the one behind this.

    At least the ROK Navy is firing back.

  2. Irene says:

    It will be interesting to see what the US will do at this moment – and Ernst, I can see why you want your anonymity – not a politician? – that’s funny, you sure act like one.

  3. DragonTail says:

    This could be the first of many “last gasps” of the dying regime. One would hope those acts of desperation don’t spiral into something far worse (mushrooms).

    NK is becoming even more unpredictable than ever and that might speak to widening schisms in the leadership…

  4. Fred J Harris says:

    To Irene. I can assure you the US will do nothing. Our President with sneak a cigarette and make a passing anti semetic remark.

  5. The_Incredible_HUK says:

    Fred J Harris, but what can or should the United States do? Should the USAF launch an aerial assault on Pyongyang?

    This was an inter-Korean affair, just as the 2002 West Sea Battle and the recent skirmish (which saw a ROK ship badly damage a DPRK ship).

    There are dozens of thousands of US military personnel stationed in the ROK ready to assist the ROK military in case of war with North Korea. There are USAF aircraft stationed in naerby Japanese bases which can easily reach the Korean peninsula if the DPRK strikes.

    If this was indeed an act of brinksmanship by the North Koreans, well it worked to get them others’ attention. But it won’t work to get the US or the ROK to overreact.

  6. David Woolley says:

    There are too many possibilities to know what happened. An explosion at the stern of a warship could be gun ammunition blowing off, a depth charge (if South Korea still uses them) detonating spontaneously, or even a hot shipborne torpedo. It could also be something like hotwelding in the engine room with acetylene that explodes. So those “own goals’ have to be excluded.
    A sudden external explosion could be cause by an escaped North Korean mine, or a longterm mine that went off by mistake or an electrical mine that was again exploded inadvertently. Those are “accidents”.
    Then of course there are the deliberate escalations — a lucky first shot from landbased gunfire or a deliberate torpedo.
    So there are at least six or seven accidental causes to two deliberate possibilities. Let’s wait and hope.

  7. Matt says:

    There is a way for the US to aid the South while staying inconspicuous. Use the B-2.

    This seems like much more then regime posturing, or a minor sea skirmish. I wonder if His Withering Majesty is near death, and the KPA is trying to make a scenario where his death could be made into an assassination. I can’t see this tactic fooling anyone, but it may be enough to restore some of the lost moral within the KPA.

  8. Aaron says:

    > This was an inter-Korean affair

    Exactly. US will do what it does best: abandon an ally and surrender to communism. It never missed an opportunity to throw up the hands for $$.

  9. [W]hat can or should the United States do?

    Plenty. To name just a few options, we can put them back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, file those indictments for the Supernote countfeiting consipiracy, and ask Kim Jong Il’s European bankers to freeze his accounts to satisfy any potential judgment.

    And that’s just the beginning.

  10. Justin Ove says:

    David,

    I certainly appreciate and understand that there are hundreds of things that could have caused the explosion. Allow me to be devil’s advocate and advance the possibility that the SK ship was struck by a North Korean acoustic homing torpedo. This would explain the location of the explosion just as plausibly as a faulty depth charge.

  11. david woolley says:

    Justin,
    on a well run naval vessel, there are not hundreds of things that could explode and cause a serious enough hole below the waterline that would cause a vessel to begin sinking. Just a few, but some of them, like acetylene bottles or oxygen equipment are not always considered. The stupid Sovs carried hydrogen peroxide torpedoes on the Kursk, which was just a very big bang waiting to happen. I believe the South Korean Navy is very well run, and that vessels in that particular area would have been “closed up” in case of accident. I agree with you that it could have been a homing torpedo, but my suspicion is that it would more likely be a mine. But the point is less the bang than what it means — and we can’t determine that until we know if it was deliberate or accidental, internal to the vessel or external. Nice to talk to you.

  12. slim says:

    WTF, Aaron? Exactly. US will do what it does best: abandon an ally and surrender to communism. It never missed an opportunity to throw up the hands for $$.

  13. The_Incredible_HUK says:

    Plenty. To name just a few options, we can put them back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, file those indictments for the Supernote countfeiting consipiracy, and ask Kim Jong Il’s European bankers to freeze his accounts to satisfy any potential judgment.

    And that’s just the beginning.

    You’ll get no arguments from me here, Joshua; I for one want the DPRK back on State’s terrorism list. But with this particular incident, since it was probably an inter-Korean affair, can the US get involved? The US did not get involved in the West Sea battle and it didn’t get involved when the ROK Navy scorched a DPRK vessel (although with the West Sea battle, US military commanders in the ROK sent condolence letters to the bereaved.).

  14. a listener says:

    President LMB assures the public that this was a freak accident due to the encounter of mutant seagulls.

  15. You know, 40 sailors just died….

  16. a listener says:

    And my heart goes out to their familes. But at least I didnt post anything on the likes of the U.S. surrenders to commumnism as a result. I just think it is too early for the ROK president to be ruling anything out or downplaying it.

  17. a listener says:

    One question though, if and a very big IF it were a submerged mine isnt it considered an international act of war to mine disputed waterways?

  18. james says:

    isn’t counterfeiting US currency an act of war?

  19. Ditto81 says:

    James if that were the case then the U.S. would have known for time…
    And yes we do. Even before Reagan and Nixon the D.P.R.K. has been trying to succeed at counterfeiting the United States currency. Within the last 20 years they have succeeded in trying to not get caught. The United States knows that it’s currency is the most envied to be copied. It is not a declaration of war to try to copy our currency James. It only solidifies our claim to our envied Dollar. The more they try to copy, the more we know how valuable our currency is in the long and short term haul. The U.S., prior to some international belief is not stupid. Let them try to copy us, it only makes us stroger.

  20. Ernst says:

    So now we know the Norks have nothing to do with it, apparantly. Doesn’t make it less of a tragedy for the missing sailors and family, but at least another 1950 has been averted.

    Which is just as well, as Obama is probably clueless when it comes down to handling the Korean peninsula, just as he is clueless when it comes down to handling all matters regarding Geo Politics. A case in point is obviously his deep bow to the Saudi prince and his ass kissing of Iran whilst snubbing the Israeli Prime Minister last week.

    Anyway, fortunately within three years the smoke alarms in the white house can be switched off.

  21. Alec says:

    >> This could be the first of many “last gasps” of the dying regime. One would hope those acts of desperation don’t spiral into something far worse (mushrooms).

    With even a fraction of 10,000 conventional missiles trained on Seoul, any absence of nukes hardly will be a blessing.

  22. david woolley says:

    Jonathan, you are right that very little is stored below an engine room — but there may be non-petroleum-gas-free fuel tanks alongside it between the engine room and the ship’s shell, which can explode. Remember the Boeing over Long Island in the 90s? This is likely to be a gas-turbine vessel, and an engine explosion itself might have occurred, with redhot blades slicing through the air into other adjacent compartments. There are still lots of inboard causes to be ruled out.

    But what suggest to me most strongly that this was an external cause is the very large number of missing and dead. Warships are built with casualties in mind, and the vessel’s compartmentalisation is designed to minimise them. An inboard explosion, even of an armory of depth charges, would cause serious damage, and maybe a dozen or twenty deaths — but forty five is extreme on a ship of 120. Seamen’s accommodations are often aft, but even then, a deathblow there is likely not to exceed 30. 45 is huge.

    Now if it were an external cause and it were a mine — it could be one of “ours.” Look at the islands in the West Sea. Were there a Nork attack, we’d want to mine the area between them– and that means we almost certainly already have done so, by mines that are on the seabed ready to be detonated by electrical impulses from shore. They could also have a secondary pressure trigger if the electric signal was cut. So there could have been a mistake.

    So there’s an awful lot to be looked at before anyone (outside a very small naval investigatory force) has any real idea what happened. And if it was not a Nork attack, do not necessarily expect to be told the truth about what it really was.

  23. Jhpigott says:

    David,

    Not being all the familiar with S. Korean politics I have the following question: Is this the kind of incident the S. Korean govt. would be able to “sweep under the rug” so to speak?

    46 dead sailors and the total loss of very expensive military hardware – seems to me that, if determined that the cause was hostile N. Korean action, some kind of military/political response is in order or the current govt. would be run out of town???

    And if it was an accident of some type that a detailed explanation would be in order???

  24. kushibo says:

    I appreciate your updates, Joshua. Now you got me thinking that there really is a strong possibility of North Korean involvement, even if the ROK government is prudently denying it before they have more evidence.

    Whatever happens, this investigation needs to be done right. Whether it takes days or weeks, there will be time for economic and/or military retaliation, if the situation calls for it.

  25. King Tut says:

    Eye witnesses (nearby residents) heard artillery fire for 15 minutes (which was explained away as shooting at a flock of seagulls/later denied by officials). Several minutes later, the explosion, and the ship sinks.

    What are you guys going on about how this may be a random mine? You’re discounting eye witnesses in favor of diplomatic press releases?

    My 6 year-old could put the logic together that this was a skirmish of some sort, and that the ROK ship got served.

  26. OT says:

    My bet is attack by loose NK generals who made their own decision. That would explain silence of official DPRK media and also downplaying by ROK officials. Hotline call has been exchanged between state heads.

    Motive of loose DPRK military branch could be anything. They could be hardliners in seek of a leadership, or more funding for starving navy, or perhaps even someone who is trying to expedite the course of history for good.

  27. Lee says:

    Ships carrying ordnance can explode, but in a modern navy, how likely is a sizeable corvette likely to explode into two separate pieces by itself, while on patrol during a time of heightened tensions? Who would design a ship with this kind of flaw?

    It’s logical to assume that the South Korean government would have a complete contingency plan for something of this nature. Such a plan would have a delay of information release to the media and a coordinated assessment stage, where time must be bought. There are huge consequences for any wrongful conclusions.

    If it were definitively not the work of the North, then I think the priority of the ROK government would be to announce exactly that, in order to settle market jitters. But they have not conclusively announced that yet. Unfortunately it also seems entirely reasonable that if it really was an attack, covering it up is in the best interests of the ROK. A stealth assault may provoke retaliation by the South, but the North can use this for its own political or propaganda purposes by denying it was the perpetrator. We have all seen how irresponsible and hostile the North has been in previous years. A regime in trouble would see itself as forced to consider extreme strategies.

    Looking at that picture of the semi-submersible, it reminds me of the stories of the high-tech drug runners that bring narcotics into the US from South America. They’ve become adept at building vessels that are nearly impossible to detect by sonar or radar.

    These submersibles are best used at night, because they can be easily spotted from the air. And it would not be difficult for the North Koreans to get their hands on one, due to their links with international drug trafficking.

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