At approximately 9:30pm local time on March 26 a ROK Navy Pohang class, the Cheonan, corvette was patrolling off Baengnyeong Island when it was torn in half by an underwater explosion. The explosion killed 46 ROK sailors and a diver died during subsequent recovery operations.
Suspicion immediately focused on the rogue regime now ruling North Korea, the DPRK. Today that suspicion was borne out.
South Korea will formally blame North Korea on Thursday for launching a torpedo at one of its warships in March, causing an explosion that killed 46 sailors and heightened tensions in one of the world’s most perilous regions, U.S. and East Asian officials said.
South Korea concluded that North Korea was responsible for the attack after investigators from Australia, Britain, Sweden and the United States pieced together portions of the ship at the port of Pyeongtaek, 40 miles southwest of Seoul. The Cheonan sank on March 26 after an explosion rocked the 1,200-ton vessel as it sailed on the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s west coast.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because South Korea has yet to disclose the findings of the investigation, said subsequent analysis determined that the torpedo was identical to a North Korean torpedo that South Korea had obtained.
Wretchard of Belmont Club has, as usual, the best run down on events and The New Ledger’s Joshua Stanton offers some interesting thoughts on the subject.
At a different place or time the destruction of a man-of-war of one sovereign state by the armed forces of another would have resulted in war. For a lot of reasons the risk of war today is probably no higher than it was when the Cheonan left its home port.
The ROK has ignored many much more serious provocations in the past. In 1968 as DPRK commando team was stopped less than a half mile from the ROK equivalent of the White House on a mission to kill the ROK president Park Chung Hee. In 1974 they made another try which netted them the ROK’s First Lady. It took a gunfight at a ROK cabinet meeting to accomplished what the DPRK intelligence apparatus failed to do. In 1983, an attempt was made on the life of President Chen Doo-hwan in Rangoon, Burma (or Myanmar or whatever). It was a near miss that killed the ROK cabinet while sparing President Chun.
Not only the ROK has ignored provocations but so have we. In 1968 the USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas, in 1969 a Navy EC-121 electronic reconnaissance aircraft was shot down with the loss of 31 men, and in 1976 two American officers were axed to death inside the DMZ.
Much to our national disgrace, three successive administrations have cooperated in propping up the criminal regime in Pyongyang, now allowing it to become a nascent nuclear power. The obvious solution to the DPRK problem is regime change.
Regime change, however, is fraught with problems. The obvious way to bring down the DPRK is via starvation. The DPRK is the only nation where adults today are shorter than their grandparents because of the institutionalization of starvation in that country over three generations. A squeezing of the food aid pipeline would create unmanageable unrest in the DPRK but we would have to be willing to starve about a million or so Koreans to death and our ability to manage the aftermath is questionable. Or it would force China to step up to the plate and spend even more money to support its unruly client state.
There is a rational fear that the ruling class in Pyongyang would elect to go out in some sort of Götterdämmerung. I don’t know how reasonable that fear is. The country is starving and how long it could maintain an army in the field is really questionable. The whole mythos of the thousands of weapons targeting Seoul is really crap as is readily apparent to anyone with access to a map, protractor, DPRK order of battle, and Google Earth which is not to say the DPRK isn’t crazy or dangerous but only to say that the ROK isn’t helpless and 30 miles remains beyond the range of all but the very heaviest artillery pieces.
The real brake on taking out the DPRK regime is the fact that the ROK really doesn’t want to. The impetus towards reunification was stopped, if not rolled back, by the fall of East Germany. When the ROK government and people saw that a very rich country like West Germany was struggling to economically integrate a country much wealthier than the DPRK a panic set in. It was obvious that if the DPRK did collapse the ROK would have to pick up the costs of rehabilitating the wreckage and they knew they could not do that without brutalizing the standard of living in the ROK.
So here we are. American presidents are taking the DPRK seriously because of the fecklessness of the Clinton Administration now has the capability to plausibly claim it has a nuclear weapon. The ROK is afraid of the costs of reunification. What China’s agenda is is anyone’s guess. And the DPRK remains free to purvey SCUD missiles, crystal meth, counterfeit currency and terror with impunity.
And there is no end in sight.
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