- On July 21 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced
new sanctions against North Korea. They were aimed ostensibly at nudging
North Korea to abandon its effort to become a full-fledged nuclear power.
However, the sanctions flow from the North's alleged March 2010 sinking
of South Korea's corvette Cheonan. While North Korean culpability in that
incident is by no means certain, the country is certainly on the wrong
side of conventional wisdom on the subject. Perhaps the more interesting
question would be just why North Korea would want to sink a South Korean
naval vessel that appears to have been exercising, but apparently was
not attacking or maneuvering to attack the North. Whatever the conclusion,
it is obvious that this story has two sides and that a diligent effort
is being made to have only one side of the story publicized. Facing that
situation, the North appears to have decided not to play.
- The waters of the Yellow Sea splash against the boundary
between North and South Korea, actually the demarcation line that has persisted
since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The boundary itself is a three
mile no man's land between the two countries. While the original demarcation
line was the 38th parallel, the actual line(see blue line in upper right
inset of map below) runs from north of the 38th parallel in the east to
south of the parallel in the west. In the map (courtesy of GlobalSecurity.org)
the blue arrow points to the site of the Cheonan sinking. Note in the
map that the event was in close proximity to the so called Northern Limit
Line (in red) that extends westward from the demilitarized zone and out
into the Yellow Sea
- The Northern Limit Line (NLL on map) was established
in 1953. It originally was invoked to keep South Koreans out of North Korean
waters. However, it has evolved to be a boundary used more by the South
to prevent North Koreans from coming into South Korean territory, as apparently
North Korean fisherman frequently do.
- From time to time a dispute arises as in 2009 when the
South Korean Navy fired on a North Korean ship, allegedly for crossing
- That vessel was damaged but not sunk, and the North Koreans
demanded an apology. No apology was ever extended, even though South Korean
responsibility for the attack was not denied. Small shifts in the reported
position of the Cheonan would have placed it on or north of the line at
the time of the incident. However, by merely denying any responsibility
for the incident the North chooses not to argue the issue of Cheonan location
at the time.
- The corvette became the mainstay of the South Korean
Navy in the early 1950s when a number of US corvettes were turned over
to South Korea. Running a Navy training program at US Destroyer Base San
Diego, California at the time, my main task was to get the Korean crews
trained to man these vessels. With the aid of a bilingual Korean Navy Lieutenant,
the two of us were able to translate the corvette training manuals into
Korean and facilitate basic training of the crews. The rest they learned
at sea; most members of the crews were experienced sailors on other vessels.
The commander of this little fleet was a wizened old sailor who spoke no
English but understood and facilitated the work the Lieutenant and I were
doing to help him take delivery of the ships and sail them to Korea.
- Corvettes were and are a lousy way to make a long sea
voyage, but the vessels were good for the coastal defense missions the
Koreans had to conduct, and they still dominate the South Korean navy.
The Cheonan was a newer generation built in the 1980s, and it was one
of 28 corvettes in service at the time of the incident. The ship count
for South Korea's Navy in 2010 showed that the fleet included five or six
destroyers and about the same number of frigates, but corvettes outnumbered
all other vessels in the system except patrol boats. Recent reports suggest
that the fleet will include more seagoing vessels as South Korea looks
toward a mission to protect its role in global maritime affairs.
- With US help the fore and aft segments of the Cheonan
have been raised. While as lifted from the sea the forward half of the
Cheonan appears more or less intact, examination of those remains led the
members of a joint investigative team of US, Australian, United Kingdom,
and Swedish experts to conclude that the Cheonan was sunk by an explosion,
the after effects of which look like the results of a torpedo blast. The
charge is that the torpedo was delivered by a North Korean submarine.
Since North Korea has both regular and mini subs in its fleet, that sounds
plausible. However, the crew of the Cheonan reported no sighting of a submarine
or of a torpedo in motion. Some observers suggest that the explosion was
merely an onboard accident.
- A key question that has not been addressed in the voluminous
reporting of the March incident is what the Cheonan was doing in the boundary
waters of North and South Korea when the incident occurred. The waters
in the vicinity of the Northern limit line should, in principle, be avoided
by military vessels of both sides or entered only on notice.
- A partial answer to that question is provided by the
fact that the US and South Korea conduct training exercises in that region
of the Yellow Sea from time to time. And they do so over the objections
of both North Korea and China. The US and South Korean angle on their
recent four day exercise program is that it was designed to keep the North
Koreans in their place. That appears deliberately threatening even though
both the US and South Korea probably would deny such immediate intent.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that any maneuvers the North Koreans
might conduct in those same waters would be viewed and publicly criticized
as a threat.
- All of that is by way of pointing out that such exercises
long have been potentially accident prone. Taking the story of innocent-at
least not intentionally warlike-presence in the area at face value, one
can ask what might have happened had the South Korean Cheonan started a
potentially threatening maneuver without noting that a North Korean naval
vessel was a witness to the exercise. Or suppose that the Cheonan decided
to proceed with a set of moves knowing that it had a North Korean witness?
- None of the scenarios presented so far account for how
the Cheonan and its alleged adversary were suddenly in close proximity.
Rather, they suggest that the Cheonan was mucking about in the boundary
zone and may have accidentally crossed the line. Something like that happened
in 2009 and, as noted above, the South opened fire. However, for the North
to use this scenario it would have to admit firing a torpedo at the Cheonan
and take its chances with persuading the US, South Korea or the rest of
the world that it was within its rights. Given attitudes in the West toward
North Korea, that would be a very hard sell.
- Whatever the eventual conclusion, it is obvious that
this story has two sides and that a diligent effort is being made to have
only one side of the story publicized. At best the North Koreans are in
the position of having to prove a negative. A simple denial does not meet
the US/South Korean requirement for a Code Napoleon solution: Prove you
did not attack, and if you can't prove it, we will presume you did attack.
The depressing effect of that outcome is that it justifies the US and South
Korea spending millions of dollars and maneuvering scores of naval vessels-all
actually aimed at intimidating the North Koreans. And the Cheonan explosion,
whatever its origin, becomes a tool for increasing pressure on North Korea
- All of that could be unnecessary if the two sides were
treated as equals. However, viewed through the friendliest of optics,
the situation presents a problem of double standards. The US is the world's
major nuclear power and with the help of the majority of the nuclear powers
it is trying to prevent a fledgling from becoming more capable. No one
can object to serious efforts to limit the spread of nuclear armaments,
but the hard reality question is when will this process actually become
even handed? When will the major nuclear powers actually show signs themselves
of promised acts in line with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to shed
and eventually eliminate their weaponry? It may not be immediately persuasive
to the lesser powers, but it would be reassuring indeed if the United States
and other nuclear powers showed even small signs of intent to eliminate
their own horrendous stockpiles of nuclear weapons.