UPDATE/9:30 am EDT. In a rather dramatic about-face, South Korea is now pointing the finger of blame squarely at Pyongyang. The ROK Defense Minister now says a mine from North Korea may have caused the blast that sank the Cheonan. Additionally, President Lee Myung-bak has placed the South Korean military on alert, to respond to further "moves" by the DPRK.
As ROK Navy teams continue their rescue and salvage operations, a North Korean defector raised the possibility of a suicide attack. Chang Jin-seong, who worked for Pyongyang's spy agency before fleeing in 2004, said some DPRK naval units have trained for suicide missions.
But Washington is still downplaying the possibility of North Korean involvement. Monday, a senior State Department official said the U.S. still has no firm evidence that Pyongyang was behind the attack.
American reluctance to blame North Korea promises to create a potential rift between Washington and Seoul and set the stage for a possible crisis in the coming days. If South Korea determines that Pyongyang was behind the Cheonan disaster, there will be a demand for revenge, both publicly and officially. At that point, the Obama Administration will be forced to admit North Korean complicity, and attempt to dissuade South Korea from taking military action.
And, if you don't believe South Korea would take such steps, consider the hours following the Rangoon bombing in 1983. After learning of North Korea's attempt to kill the South Korean president (and his cabinet) in Burma, some ROK Army units began mobilizing for war. One U.S. officer, stationed in Korea at the time, reports that some mechanized and armored battalions actually left their garrisons and were heading towards the DMZ--without notifying the United States.
The military preparations received little attention in the west, but they were indicative of the shock and outrage that followed the assassination attempt. Needless to say, there were some tense days in Seoul and Washington, as U.S. officials cautioned their South Korean counterparts against any hasty action. Similar discussions will likely occur in the coming days, but it may be more difficult to deter Seoul this time around. South Korea is far more powerful --militarily, politically and economically--than it was in the early 1980s, and has every right to defend its interests. If Mr. Obama and his advisors believe the Cheonan affair will quickly blow over (with little diplomatic or military fallout), they are sadly mistaken.
Three days ago, it was dominating world headlines. But almost as quickly as it sank into the Yellow Sea, the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan has disappeared from the 24-hour news cycle.
And that's clearly by design.
The sudden loss of the Cheonan was stunning, to say the least. On patrol near the disputed Northern Limit Line with North Korea, the 1,200-ton corvette was suddenly struck by a mysterious explosion that ripped the vessel in half. Three hours later, the last section of the ship went down, leaving more than 40 sailors dead or missing.
It was South Korea's worst naval calamity in more than 30 years; as rescue operations began, suspicions were immediately cast on the DPRK--and with good reason. The two Koreas have fought a series of naval engagements in the area over the past decade (with North Korea taking the worst of it), and Pyongyang has been spoiling for payback.
But in the hours following the disaster, officials in Seoul (and, to a lesser extent, Washington) tried to refocus global attention on other scenarios. As naval and coast guard vessels were pulling sailors out of the water, sources at the South Korean defense ministry suggested the Cheonan was the victim of an internal mishap, caused (perhaps) by an ammunition or engine explosion.
At the U.S. State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley was quick to point out that American officials "had no direct evidence" of North Korea involvement, and referred reporters to the ROK government for more "definitive" information.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang was quiet--a little too quiet. Normally, a scandal or blunder in South Korea becomes gist for the DPRK propaganda machine--an opportunity for Kim Jong il to tout the "superiority" of his regime. But this time, there was none of the usual bluster. In fact, North Korea seemed to go "out of its way" to avoid mentioning the maritime disaster.
Seoul and Washington also seemed reluctant to mention the tragedy, beyond the initial statements. Oddly enough, that strategy may have been the best approach, because few western observers were buying explanations of an internal explosion on the Cheonan, or U.S. claims that we "knew nothing" about possible North Korean activity in the area.
The internal failure theory was shredded almost as soon as surviving crew members reached land. They told of a routine night patrol, suddenly punctuated by a massive blast that tore the corvette in half. There were no reports of a weapons accident or engine mishap just prior to the explosion. In fact, survivor accounts--and descriptions of the damage--were consistent with a torpedo or mine attack.
As for U.S. surveillance of the area, that subject has received less attention. But Mr. Crowley's statement is little more than a carefully-worded, verbal two-step. The waters on either side of the NLL are some of the most closely-monitored on earth. The massive U.S. SIGINT complex at Osan AB, Korea (along with other sites in the Far East) monitors activity throughout North Korea, including naval traffic. U.S. and South Korea recce aircraft criss-cross the skies daily, and satellites keep close tabs on key military complexes, including those of the DPRK navy.
To be fair, the U.S. might have missed the deployment of a small number of mines, or a single torpedo shot from a North Korean submarine. But we almost certainly had a picture of naval activity along the NLL in the hours leading up to the Cheonan tragedy, and we have detailed knowledge as to how the DPRK conducts mine-laying, submarine and surface combatant operations. If North Korea recently engaged in mine-laying activity (or training), there's pretty good chance it was detected. How the information was handled is another matter, but readers will note that Mr. Crowley's response artfully dodged that type of context.
Which brings us back to the essential, unanswered questions: first, why would North Korea pull a stunt like this, and secondly, why are the U.S. and Seoul so reluctant to point the finger?
The first one is easy enough. North Korea has a long history of deadly provocations towards South Korea and the U.S. From the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968 (and the subsequent downing of an EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft the following year), to the infamous "tree-chopping" incident in the DMZ, Pyongyang has killed dozens of American servicemen over the past 40 years.
During the same period, South Korea has suffered even greater casualties. A 1968 raid by DPRK commandos on the ROK presidential mansion in Seoul killed at least 68 South Korean soldiers, police officers and civilians. Fifteen years later, North Korea attempted a similar decapitation of ROK leadership, during the infamous Rangoon bombing (while several cabinet officials were killed the South Korean leader survived only because he was running behind schedule.
Four years later, DPRK agents (acting on the personal orders of Kim Jong-il) planted explosives on a Korean Airlines jet that blew up over the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 people on board.
It remains the worst terrorist act perpetuated against a South Korean target.
Beyond casualties--and North Korean involvement--these events have something else in common, a muted response from both Seoul and Washington. There were never any retaliatory attacks against the DPRK, fearing that an increase in military activity might lead to a renewed Korean conflict. The "official" responses to these deadly attacks have been a mixture of diplomatic protests, various forms of sanctions and (on rare occasions) a military demonstration.
Against that backdrop, is it any wonder that Pyongyang continues to thumb its nose at the international community and stage "incidents" when they serve the intended purpose. Even if South Korea and the U.S. determine that the Cheonan was sunk by an enemy mine or torpedo, North Korea has little to fear, in terms of possible consequences. Better yet, the DPRK has often used such incidents to pry concessions out of the U.S. and its allies in Seoul. We can almost hear the demand this time around: "Send us more food aid and we'll guarantee that your ships don't blow up along the NLL."
What else does the DPRK gain from this? A propaganda victory (should they decide to claim it), and a tactical advantage in future clashes along the NLL. With the Cheonan disaster fresh in everyone's mind, ROK Navy commanders will be less aggressive in responding to future maritime incidents, fearing the loss of more surface vessels. Additionally, South Korean fishermen may be reluctant to return to the crab beds of the Yellow Sea, worried about the possibility of more mines in local waters, and the ability of the ROK Navy to defend them from possible DPRK attack.
As a result, you'll probably see fewer South Korean boats (and ROKN escorts) along the southern edge of the NLL this summer. It's a move that will cost the ROK economy millions--and it will make a lot of fishermen angry--but officials Washington and Seoul clearly want to avoid a confrontation with Pyongyang. In their view, North Korea is a problem to be "managed" until the communist regime eventually implodes. That's why we may never know what happened to that South Korean corvette or if we do, the news will be dribbled out on a Friday night or a holiday, to minimize media coverage.
Then, when North Korea pulls a similar stunt in the future, the same "leaders" will offer the same, feigned outrage. Once the furor dies down, they'll cave again to Pyongyang's newest demands. And the cycle will only repeat itself.