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Sinking Of The Cheonan And
The North Korea Problem
By Terrell E. Arnold
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 the line.
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 to disarm.
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.

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