Friday, March 26, 2010

Let the Testing Begin

A Pohang class corvette of the South Korean Navy. A vessel of this type was sunk a few hours ago, in the waters off North Korea ( photo).

Update/2:27 pm EDT. Various media outlets confirm that the South Korean vessel, a Pohang-class corvette has sunk. Almost 60 sailors have been rescued, but some were dead when they were pulled from the water. Government spokesmen in Seoul continue to dismiss claims that the vessel was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. However, a late AP report says the vessel went down about four hours after an explosion ripped a hole in the bottom of the ship. That description--if accurate--would suggest a torpedo or a mine, although an internal mishap remains a possibility.


We've often written that President Obama will face at least one national security crisis during 2010. From the Middle East to the Far East, there is no shortage of rivals and rogue states willing to test the administration and its mettle. Put another way, we may soon get a look at Mr. Obama's "spine of steel," famously touted by running mate Joe Biden during the 2008 campaign.

And that first test may come on the Korean Peninsula, based on this dispatch from the Washington Post. Quoting South Korea's semi-official Yonhap News Agency, the Post is reporting that a ROK Navy vessel is sinking in waters near the North Korean coast, possibly the result of a torpedo attack from the DPRK.

The initial Yonhap bulletin also indicated that at least one ROK surface vessel was firing at a North Korean vessel in the area. South Korean broadcaster SBS reported that many of the ROK sailors on the stricken vessel were feared dead.

While details on the incident remain vague, it almost certainly occurred along the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the maritime extension of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) located in the Yellow Sea. The area is also home to rich crab fishing grounds and ROK and North Korean naval units have fought several engagements there over the years. The most serious clashes occurred in 1999, 2002 and 2009. Pyongyang's naval forces came out on the losing end of those engagements, and the DPRK has been spoiling for revenge.

Additionally, there is the very real possibility that North Korea staged the naval clash as a direct challenge to the U.S. and South Korea. Pyongyang makes veiled threats about this time each year, in response to defensive exercises carried out by ROK and American forces. Deciding to up the ante, the DPRK decided to challenge South Korean naval forces in the Yellow Sea and (if press reports are accurate) managed to inflict significant casualties--perhaps far higher than those suffered by North Korean sailors in previous engagements. If the ROK vessel went down with most of its crew, it would be both a tactical and propaganda victory for Pyongyang.

To be fair, we still don't know how the South Korean vessel was damaged (or sunk). Reports of an on-going naval clash at the time would suggest a possible torpedo attack, by a DPRK surface combatant or a submarine. However, there are minefields along the NLL and it is possible that the ROK ship sailed into mined waters while engaging the North Korean vessels.

But that latter scenario is considered rather remote. The locations of those mine fields are generally well known; additionally, both sides have an incentive to limit mining activity, which might interfere with the lucrative crab fishing that takes place in those waters.

If early reports prove accurate, today's naval clash may be the deadliest engagement between North and South Korea in more than 40 years. In the late 1960s, Pyongyang dispatched a commando team to assassinate ROK President Park Chung-hee at the Blue House, South Korea's presidential mansion. The North Koreans came with 800 yards of the building before they were finally detected by security forces. More than 60 South Korea soldiers (along with three Americans) were killed in the subsequent effort to track down and eliminate the assassination team.

The ROK ship sunk into today's battle is believed to be a corvette, so the loss of life could be high. There will be immediate demands for revenge in South Korea, and that puts the U.S. squarely in the middle. How will Mr. Obama respond? Can he persuade Seoul from launching retaliatory strikes, and (more importantly): should he? Based on what we currently know, Pyongyang was the apparent aggressor, continuing a string of bloody provocations that date back to the end of the Korean War. There are many who believe that Kim Jong-il should be taught a lesson, or the same types of incidents will happen again (and again).

Tempering the desire for revenge are some sobering military facts. While North Korea's military is underfed--and its equipment is largely antiquated--it remains one of the largest in the world. And, much of that combat power is concentrated with 60 miles of the DMZ; Pyongyang has scores of long-range guns that can reach Seoul and hundreds of short, medium and long-range missiles, all capable hitting targets in the South Korea and Japan. Those targets include thousands of U.S. military personnel, stationed at bases across the peninsula.

It's also worth noting that North Korea's military readiness reaches a peak at this time of year, with the end of the annual Winter Training Cycle. That doesn't mean that an invasion of the south is imminent, but it does give Pyongyang more potential options, if the crisis escalates.

And, as we finish this post, the DPRK is threatening a nuclear attack on South Korea and the U.S., claiming its has been threatened by our recent military exercises.

That's the reality facing Mr. Obama in the coming days. We're guessing that health care, cap and trade and amnesty for illegals will move to the back burner, at least for a few days.
ADDENDUM: In its latest statement, the South Korean Defense Ministry is down-playing reports of a torpedo attack. According to a spokesman, at least 58 sailors have been pulled from the water, and six rescue vessels are on-scene. But the MOD has not explained what caused the explosion that ripped through the ship. Save a weapons accident, there are few "internal" explanations for the sudden loss of the ROK vessel.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

The man-child will turn the other cheek and be promptly slapped again. He has no spine, no courage, and no strategy for dealing with the tyrants of the world. He just inked a deal with Russia that is an unmitigated disaster. We give up more modern nuclear weaponry and they give up obsolete, non-functional nuclear weapons...what a deal. Not only is he bankrupting this country (financially and morally), he is unilaterally laying us wide open to those who would destroy us and our way of life from the outside as he does his best to destroy us from the inside. 2012 cannot get here fast enough to save the Republic.

BruHa said...

Great analysis.

This has the potential to "blow up" big time, no wonder why it is being "Played down". In my readings,(very novice I might add) Statists governments Militaries tend to act "Irrationally" in our eyes and anything can be possible. Commanders on the scene are enabled or paralyzed by fear of their own government even more so than their perceived enemy.

In the blink of an eye "Barry" might have his hands full.