Mystery Korean Military Sinking

If something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck . . . then it’s a duck, right? OK. Now how about if something looks like a North Korean attack (South Korean frigate explodes and suddenly sinks), is where North Korea attacks (the doomed ship was in disputed waters), and fits right into a long history of North Korean attacks – is it a North Korean attack?

As this article by S├ębastien Falletti in Le Figaro demonstrates, maybe not – even though South Korean authorities did take emergency measures in reaction to Saturday’s sinking of the Cheonan, President Lee Myung-bak calling an urgent meeting of national security advisors at his “crisis bunker.” At least the only aggressive military response was that of yet another South Korean naval vessel opening fire on a suspicious approaching aerial threat that appeared on its radar – which turned out only to be a flock of birds.

Still, that relatively harmless mistake highlights the highly-dangerous potential of any incidents between the North and South Korean armed forces – or of violent-but-blameless incidents that simply take place anywhere in the area. Only last November the South Korean navy fired upon a North Korean vessel that had strayed over the territorial-water boundary line and sent it back in flames. But, incredibly, the jury is still out as to whether there was any North Korean responsibility for what happened two days ago, the sudden sinking that caused 46 of the crew of 102 to be lost at sea.

As the Cheonan’s surviving captain reports, “There was an explosion [in the vessel’s stern], then the electricity went out and the ship started listing to the right.” Does that have to mean some sort of attack, e.g. by a torpedo? American military sources reported no unusual movement or other activity by North Korean forces at the time of the incident. Remember that there is always the embarrasing possibility here of an own-goal: warships carry a lot of explosives, meant as greeting-cards to other, unfriendly warships. These aren’t supposed to all blow up together by accident, but it can happen.

In any case, the incident is mystifying enough that authorities in Seoul plan to recover the wreck in order to investigate further what really happened. Which could thereupon prompt a truly-serious incident between the two Korean neighbors: again, the doomed ship was sailing in disputed waters when it went down. But maybe this time the small consolation will be the lack of ambiguity as to which side did what.

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