By William Tucker
The South Korean warship Cheonan was struck by external explosives, possibly torpedoes, when it sunk on March 26 of this year. Part of the ship was recently salvaged and according to investigators there is no doubt that the explosion occurred outside of the vessel making the occurrence of an accident unlikely. According to North Korean defectors, the attack on the Cheonan was personally ordered by Kim Jong-Il in retaliation for a naval skirmish that occurred in 2009. If the reports from these defectors and South Korean intelligence are accurate this places Seoul in a difficult position.
The claim of Northern complicity in the Cheonan sinking comes on the heels of intelligence analysts now calling North Korea a full fledged nuclear power. The North has tested two nuclear devices in the past, but now analysts believe that Pyongyang has managed to successfully miniaturize the devices for marrying with a delivery system. If accurate, it could serve to explain why the North would take such a provocative action against the South Korean navy. Other reports today have the South Koreans arresting two Northern agents suspected of trying to assassinate a North Korea defector. All told, Pyongyang is becoming more aggressive and more willing to take provocative actions.
This does not mean that a hot war is going to break out on the Korean peninsula, but it does mean that South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has a tough decision to make. Lee can retaliate militarily with a precision strike, but the risk of the conflict getting out of hand is high. On the other hand Lee faces coming elections and he cannot risk looking weak by doing nothing. Further exasperating matters is that South Korea has already cut off aid to the North and with heavy sanctions all ready levied against the communist nation there are not many options available for recourse. Ultimately, the leadership in Seoul is going to have to rely on the U.S. and Japan for helping to contain and mitigate the more aggressive threat from the North even if the result is symbolic. Lee just doesn’t have any other options.
Author’s note: I have doubts about the claims that North Korea has managed to create a nuclear device that is stable enough to fit on a delivery system. The two devices that NK has tested appeared to have failed because of trouble engineering what is known as a full-scale hemispherical explosively driven shock system. This is an array of convention explosives (known as lenses) that are arranged around the nuclear material resembling the pattern of a soccer ball. Each of these explosive lenses must be precisely manufactured and detonated at the same moment. If this system fails it is still possible to extract a nuclear detonation from the device albeit at significantly lower yield. If rumors that NK is going to test another device in the near future are accurate we will have a better understanding of the state of NK’s nuclear program with the results from that test. That being said, there are a lot of unknown’s about NK’s nuclear program meaning that the uncertainty will most likely dissuade the South from retaliating over the Cheonan.
Photo credit: The Times
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