KOREAN PENINSULA: by John MillerNews Weekly
Torpedo attack suspected in mystery sinking
, May 15, 2010
A 1,200-tonne South Korean frigate, the Cheonan, split in two and sank on March 26, following an explosion of unknown origin under its stern. The vessel was on patrol in international waters but close to the border with North Korea, and sank off the west coast island of Baekryongdo.
About 60 of the crew were rescued but 46 souls were lost, and the South Korean navy has raised parts of the sunken ship in an attempt to determine the cause of the sinking. All early news reports stated that there were no North Korean vessels in the vicinity, but there were some indications that a torpedo or a mine had hit the Cheonan
. Later, there were more extravagant claims that it was a suicide attack by human torpedoes from North Korea.
More recent accounts indicate that the explosion was under the hull causing the ship to break in two. From the work conducted by naval researchers, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo
asserts that the damage was done by a torpedo travelling at 65 km/hr, which exploded 2.3 m from the ship with the power equivalent of 206 kg of TNT (Chosun Ilbo
, May 3, 2010). The scientific verification from research facilities, which analysed seismic data at the time of the explosion, appears fairly conclusive. Bae Myung-jin, a professor at the sound engineering research laboratory of Soongsil University, said that his team concluded that the torpedo was a Chinese-made Yu-3 heavy torpedo.
The consequences of the sinking of the Cheonan
are extremely serious given the politics of the region. Although South Korea has a formidable air force and navy, backed up by a formidable US armed presence, it is extremely unlikely that it will retaliate militarily against North Korea.
As yet, there appears to be no indication of how the torpedo was launched. Any counterattack would be likely to ignite conflict between the two Korean states - a conflict that would draw in major powers. The general consensus appears to be that the South Korean government has very few good options. President Myung-bak Lee is under considerable pressure from conservative forces, but is constrained by these limited choices.
Once again, Korea has been thrust into the forefront of difficult North Asian politics. Only time will tell whether a peaceful solution can be found. Australia is not involved, and the international situation is quite different from that of the 1950s; but we should never forget how our fighting men played a distinguished role in a bitter and largely forgotten war.
All branches of the Australian armed forces were involved in the bloody conflict on the Korean peninsula from 1950 to 1953. Some 17,000 served. The casualties numbered more than 1,500, with 339 killed.
Australian action in Korea at that time was a mandated United Nations operation, which naturally enough was opposed by the communist powers and vigorously attacked in Australia by the usual suspects in the trade union movement and parts of the Labor Party.
Much of that has been forgotten with the passage of years; but it's not terribly surprising to find that very few people realise that a state of war still technically exists between communist North Korea and democratic South Korea. Notwithstanding a supposed armistice, there have been numerous violations of the demilitarised zone (DMZ), various incursions by North Korean forces into the South and regular North Korean protests against joint US-South Korean military exercises.
The turbulent South has a love-hate relationship with the US, but relies on the nuclear umbrella to protect it from its northern brothers who live in appalling conditions and suffer deprivations that are hard for us to comprehend. Australians readily trade with South Korea, and many of this country's products are held to be the equal of Japanese.
In the communist North, the economy is believed to be close to collapse. According to respectable sources, even the Chinese Government is losing patience because the ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his designated heir, the largely unknown Kim Jong-un, are behaving more like a royal family, while the armed forces sequester most of the food, leaving the average Korean with a diet that barely meets subsistence requirements.
The South Korean government in Seoul is only too aware that its belligerent northern neighbour is nuclear-armed and a mere 20 minutes' drive from the border by tank. On April 26, a US expert on the area claimed that there is a resurgent electronic "chatter" about the situation in North Korea and the fragility of the regime. It was suggested that China was cutting its losses with what was once a close client-state.
Strangely for a country, which is regarded as inward-looking, its citizens have turned to the internet and engaged in what has been described as "stunning levels of social disobedience by listening to foreign media services".
The North Korean leadership may be losing some of its hold on its citizenry, according to a study by the East-West Center in Hawaii; but organised resistance is still only a pipedream.John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.