South Korea will today release evidence that North Korea torpedoed the warship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors, after a multinational investigation involving five Australian Defence Force personnel. The South Korean government requested help from Australia, the US, Britain, Sweden and Canada in responding to the March 26 sinking, which risks developing into a dangerous regional flashpoint. The investigation team is expected to reveal today that a serial number and explosive traces show the torpedo that sank the warship was made in North Korea, South Korean media reported.
A Royal Australian Navy accident investigation team, led by Commander Anthony Powell, arrived in Seoul on April 13. They provided expertise in piecing together clues in the ship’s structure, as well as scientific skills. Two Australian maritime intelligence officers and a naval officer remain in South Korea as part of the investigation team that will make the public announcement today.
Seoul is likely to use the findings to seek international diplomatic support for tougher economic sanctions against North Korea, and to raise the issue with the United Nations Security Council. While Japan and the US are likely to support such action, China, a reluctant critic of the North Korean regime, has a veto on the Security Council.
Dr Adrian Buzo, a former Australian diplomat in Pyongyang and author of The Guerilla Dynasty, said the South Korean public would demand its government take a stern line in blaming North Korea. ”They have 45 servicemen [who] have died by [a] direct North Korean act of war. They have a domestic political reason to be tough,” Dr. Buzo said.
However, the world could expect ”continual loud and rude denials” from North Korea in response. ”North Korea [seems] to be going through an aggressive phase towards the South,” he said. ”They periodically engage in demonstrative violence. The tougher, more aggressive the stance they take the more they feel they are putting their opponents on the back foot.”
Dr Leonid Petrov, of the University of Sydney, said the South Korean government needed to tread warily, and was limited in what action it could take beyond words. ”North Korea may deny it or use it as a provocation. South Korea should be very careful because the war hasn’t finished. It is an armistice regime on the peninsula … It is another pretext for six-party talks not to resume,” he said.
Six-party talks aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have been stalled since 2008, and tough trade sanctions have already been imposed in response to a nuclear test by Pyongyang last year. Both the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, and the South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, travelled to China this month before the release of the investigation findings.
The Foreign Affairs Minister, Stephen Smith, said in Shanghai on Tuesday that North Korea’s ”ongoing conduct is a threat” to the security of the region, and China could play an important role in bringing Pyongyang back to dialogue with the international community. ”China can be an important influence on [North Korea], as reflected by President Kim’s recent visit to China,” he said.
Leonid Petrov, a North Korean specialist and a lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Sydney, told Al Jazeera that relations between the North and South have been deteriorating for some time.
“The inter-Korean relationship is destroyed now, co-operation has crumbled … the result was the sinking of the Cheonan, and I can see it’s a very logical result of this collapse in communication and inter-Korea relations.
“Such accidents could have been easily prevented by diplomatic means – this is something President Lee jeopardised by scrapping the ‘sunshine policy’ [of rapprochement towards the North],” he said.
The article by independent journalist Tanaka Sakai hypothesizes about what may have happened on the night of March 26 and after. Drawing on ROK TV and press reports and photographs, some of which were subsequently suppressed, Tanaka places at center stage a range of factors, some fully documented, others speculative, that have been missing, distorted, or silenced in US and ROK narratives: they include the fact and location of the US-ROK military exercise that was in progress at the time of the incident and the possibility that the Cheonan was sunk by friendly fire.
Tanaka also presents evidence suggesting the secret presence of a US nuclear submarine stationed off Byaengnyong Island, the possible sinking of a US vessel during the incident, the role of US ships in the salvage and rescue operations that followed, the failure of the submarine USS Columbia to return from South Korea to its home port in Hawaii, and the death of an ROK diver in the attempt to recover that vessel.
At stake are issues that could rock the ROK government on the eve of elections, and could impinge on the US-ROK military relationship as the US moves to transfer authority over command to ROK forces by 2012, and to expand the role of China in the geopolitics of the region. There are implications for tensions between North Korea and the US/ROK on the one hand, and for the permanent stationing of US nuclear, and nuclear-armed, submarines in South Korean waters. Above all, there is the possibility that renewed war may be imminent in the Korean peninsula (Introduction by Mark Selden).