One week ago, the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan sank in the Yellow Sea after being ripped apart by a massive explosion. More than 40 members of the ship's crew remain unaccounted for and are presumed dead. Survivors said the blast split the warship in two sections; the stern sank almost immediately, producing most of the casualties. The forward section remain afloat for almost three hours, allowing more than 50 sailors to survive the disaster.
In the hours after the Cheonan went down, both Seoul and Washington carefully avoided blaming North Korea. Never mind that the corvette exploded and sank near the disputed Northern Limit Line (the maritime extension of the Korean DMZ); or that ROK and North Korean ships have fought bloody engagements in those waters over the past decade. Officials in South Korea and the U.S. emphasized that it was too early to point fingers; assigning blame would come only after completion of a detailed investigation.
While that inquiry is continuing, many in the ROK defense establishment believe the cause (and culprit) has already been established. A senior military official told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper there is a "60-70% percent chance the ship was hit by a North Korean torpedo before it went down." The official based his observation on indications that the Cheonan was fatally damaged by an external explosion, and not an internal mishap. He also suggested that a torpedo attack was considered more likely than a second possibility, that the corvette hit a mine left over from the Korean War.
Buttressing the torpedo theory, a second government source told the paper that U.S. spy satellites detected the departure of a DPRK submarine from the base at Sagot "several days" before the Cheonan went down. The sub reportedly returned to port after the corvette was sunk. The North Korean naval facility is located about 50km from where the ROK vessel sank.
Still, these reports do not represent a smoking gun (or torpedo). As South Korean and U.S. officials freely admit, North Korean subs sortie into the Yellow Sea on a recurring basis. At this point, there is no hard evidence that places any DPRK submarine or smaller submersible in proximity to the Cheonan when it sank.
Additionally, some naval analysts believe the submarine scenario is unlikely because the Yellow Sea (in that area) is extremely shallow. However, that does not rule out a torpedo strike by a submarine operating on the surface, or a launch from a smaller submersible, which can remain submerged in very shallow waters. According to intelligence estimates, at least 20 North Korean submarines and other submersibles operate from Sagot.
While forensic evidence has not produced conclusive proof of a DPRK torpedo or mine attack, the investigation seems to point toward that conclusion. And (as we noted in a previous post), that creates problems for the Obama Administration. The White House and its national security team have been reluctant to point fingers at Pyongyang.
What will happen when the ROK government builds a case that North Korea was to blame, and demand revenge? Past administrations have been able to dissuade Seoul from taking military action, but in those days, South Korea was far weaker militarily, and more dependent on the U.S. for air, naval, intelligence and logistical support. Today, the ROK military is both modern and powerful, more than capable of launching a unilateral strike against Sagot, or other facilities in North Korea.
Obviously, no one wants a resumption of the Korean War, but there is a growing sense in South Korea that Pyongyang must be punished, if it was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan. Given that reality, Mr. Obama may find it impossible to convince Seoul to turn the other cheek and follow the standard, reactive protocol of strongly-worded diplomatic protests and marginally-effective sanctions.