Korea: Washington and Seoul continue to stir the pot

By Stephen Gowans

A series of recent newspaper articles portend more — and potentially graver — troubles ahead on the Korean peninsula.

The Guardian of December 16 reports that “South Korea will hold a live-fire drill in an area shelled by North Korea as early as Saturday.” It is unclear from the Guardian report whether the South Korean military will fire artillery from Yeonpyeong Island into customary law-defined North Korean waters, thereby reprising the provocation that touched of the artillery exchange between the two sides only a few weeks ago. But if not a direct reprise of the earlier South Korean provocation, the planned live fire exercises will certainly approximate it.

According to the article, Korea expert Leonid Petrov, “warned that the move could inflame tensions on the peninsula.”

“It is appalling. If it was a bona fide need for artillery practice they have plenty of islands in the Western sea,” he said.

“This is simply sending a message that the South is putting pressure on the North – but at the same time refuses to negotiate.”

The North Korean news agency, KCNA, notes that the South’s naval firing exercises will take place in the East and South seas as well, and will follow similar drills carried out from December 6 to December 12.

North Korea sees the South’s exercises as “escalating the military tension and confrontation.”

The South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh reported on December 8 that “South Korea and the United States have agreed to bomb North Korea using aircraft if North Korea launches additional provocations.”

It’s clear from South Korea’s response to the November 23 North Korean shelling of the South’s military garrison on Yeonpyeong Island that a similar response by North Korea to live fire into its territorial waters on Saturday will be labeled a provocation by Seoul.

This could, then, trigger a joint US-South Korea air strike on the North. Or it could simply be a move to continue to ratchet up military pressure on the North.

Either way, it’s clear who the aggressors are. Their game is dangerous.

Never Mind…

There they go again. Those crazy, bellicose, destabilizing North Koreans are once again threatening their South Korean neighbors.

Pyongyang has appointed a minister of “unification” to oversee the takeover of the South by the North.

According to the minister, it is necessary for North Korea to carve out the future of the Korean peninsula, with anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and a command economy as its values.

He might as well have said that the North is preparing to absorb the South.

When will the provocations stop?

Oh. Hold on.

It wasn’t the North that said this. It was the South.

Hyun In-taek, a member of the South Korean government, whose title is Minister of Unification and whose mandate is to oversee the absorption of North into the South, said it is necessary for “South Korea to carve out the future of the Korean Peninsula” with “freedom, human rights, democracy and market economy as values.”

Never mind.

Loving the destabilizers, hating the destabilized

By Stephen Gowans

Only days after South Korea and the United States destabilized the Korean peninsula by holding military exercises in the Yellow Sea (and for the first time ever, in North Korea’s territorial waters) and soon after South Korea further destabilized the region by touching off a firefight between the two Koreas after lobbing artillery shells into waters Pyongyang claims as it own, the North Koreans began their own military drills.

South Korea—whose defense budget towers over that of the North—regularly holds drills by itself, and also with contingents drawn from the 28,000 US soldiers stationed on its soil and 40,000 stationed in nearby Japan. By contrast, there are no foreign troops in North Korea, and the North conducts its exercises alone.

To be sure, the North’s military drills do nothing to bring down the temperature, but they hardly compare in their destabilizing impact to the US and South Korean provocations of the last two weeks. A flyweight stepping up his sparring practice is hardly a threat to the middleweight who only goes into the ring with his super-heavyweight ally. And it’s clear that Washington and South Korea’s Lee government aren’t particularly interested in temperature-reduction anyway.

And yet, this headline appeared today in The Guardian:

North Korea military drills are destabilizing region, says US

It takes a lot of chutzpah to pick someone’s pocket and shout, “Stop thief!” but Washington has chutzpah aplenty, and in the Western media’s recounting of world events, Washington’s chutzpah is carefully concealed. And so it really does seem like North Korea is destabilizing South Korea, rather than the other way around.

What puts Washington’s complaint about North Korea’s military drills completely over the top is this: “South Korea is holding a nationwide set of artillery drills this week. And the United States and Japan are currently staging their largest-ever war games, including, for the the first time, South Korean observers.” And that’s not destabilizing?

Had I come across anything like the following headlines last week—which would have been a fair description of the situation from the North Korean side–I wouldn’t complain as bitterly.

Joint US-South Korea military drills are destabilizing region, says North Korea

US-South Korea wargames rehearsal for invasion, Pyongyang says

But I didn’t. Instead, I was bombarded by headlines about North Korean aggression.

And I still am.

It seems that no matter what the North Koreans do—or how destabilizing the actions of its southern neighbor and the United States are–the North Koreans will always be portrayed as the aggressors, the South Koreans as the victims, and the United States as the tough but fair peace-keeper.

If the ganging up on North Korea by the United States and South Korea–to say nothing of the Western media–weren’t enough, Washington has reminded Korea’s former colonial master, Japan, that it too has “a stake”. “We have to get to a place where there’s much more trilateral cooperation (among the US, South Korea and Japan against North Korea) than there has been in the past,” says chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who is in Japan for discussions on creating “a truly historic trilateral” alliance–a kind of anti-North Korea three-power axis.

I guess Malcolm X was right. If you substitute “destabilize” for his original “oppress”, the following epigram pretty well sums up the dangers of newspaper reading: “If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are destabilized, and loving the people who are doing the destabilizing.”

It could also be pointed out that whether military drills are destabilizing or a way of containing “a rapidly evolving threat” depends on whose side you’re on: the side of the freedom of independent peoples to pursue their own peaceful development or the side of a military behemoth seeking to bring down another independent state.

War Crimes Investigation of North Korea Ludicrous Beyond Words

By Stephen Gowans

“The International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary investigation into allegations that North Korean forces committed war crimes when they shelled civilian areas in South Korea and allegedly sank a South Korean warship,” according to The Washington Post of 7 December.

The North Koreans, it should be pointed out, didn’t shell civilian areas in South Korea; they shelled a South Korean military installation on Yeonpyeong Island, only eight miles from North Korea, after artillery was fired from the island into North Korea’s territorial waters. [1]

The North Koreans warned the South—which at the time was conducting massive military exercises with the United States—that it would retaliate if the South went ahead with its planned test firing from the island into its waters.

Pyongyang regarded the joint South Korean-US exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion, based on their substantial size (70,000 South Korean troops had been mobilized), the fact that they were taking place for the first time ever in the North’s international customary law–defined territorial waters, and involved US Marines based in Japan who were trained in amphibious assault and urban warfare. [2]

Despite the North’s entreaties that the South not proceed with its planned shelling, the South went ahead anyway. The North retaliated, as it warned it would and as Seoul surely knew it must. [3] It fired artillery at the South’s garrison on the island. While many news reports, such as the one cited above, suggest the North deliberately targeted civilians, the civilian casualties were accidental; the target was military.

The allegations that North Korea sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan—allegations which seem to owe their existence more to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s political agenda than anything else—are in tatters, the victim of an official Russian investigation and a series of independent inquiries that have punched holes in the misnamed “international”—more aptly named South Korea-plus-allies-report. [4] Is it any surprise that an inquiry carried out by countries that are hostile to North Korea would arrive at a conclusion that justifies their hostility? The report’s findings—that a North Korean torpedo sank the warship–resonated with Lee’s intuition, expressed well before the investigation was launched, that North Korea was to blame. [5] It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the report was written to justify a conclusion Lee had already arrived at, despite his own military’s initial assessment that no evidence existed to link North Korea to the mishap. [6]

The Cheonan–which had been operating in the shallow waters off Baengnyeong Island, only 10 miles from North Korea but 120 miles from the South Korean mainland—appears to have either run aground or struck an old mine. [7] But the official South Korean investigation rejected all alternative explanations, settling on the North Korea-is-guilty conclusion that members of Lee’s right-wing Grand National Party had seized upon immediately after the sinking, despite the South Korean military initially trying to dampen speculation that the North was involved. There was no evidence linking North Korea to the corvette’s sinking, Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence, told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April. South Korea’s then defense minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo [8], while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected…(in) the waters where the accident took place.” [9] Notice he said “accident.” Blaming the sinking on a North Korean torpedo, however, fit with what Selig Harrison, the US establishment’s foremost liberal expert on Korea describes as Lee’s goal: to “once again [seek] the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.” [10] So too does blaming the recent artillery exchange between the two Koreas on the North, when, in point of fact, it was the South that pulled the trigger. And so too does the ICC investigation.

While the ICC serves US interests, the United States itself refuses to submit to the court’s jurisdiction. The court could be subverted by political mischief-makers, US officials say. China, Russia and Israel also refuse to submit to the court’s purview. But Washington’s real problem with the court isn’t that frivolous charges might be brought against the country’s armed forces, but that legitimate charges most surely would be. The US record of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, to say nothing of the other theaters in which it pursues its war on resistance to US domination of Southwest Asia, could keep the ICC permanently occupied for the next decade. And Israel’s crimes—most especially those committed in Gaza–could keep the court going for years to come. Indeed, there’s a string of US and allied leaders who should be dragged before the court to stand trial—from George W. Bush to Tony Blair to Benjamin Netanyahu to Barack Obama. But they won’t be. The US, Britain, NATO and Israel have never been investigated by the ICC, and never will be, no matter how monstrous their crimes. The court exists to prosecute the weak and legitimize the crimes of the strong by ignoring them.

We have, then, a situation that is ludicrous beyond words: An ICC that is mute on US, British, NATO and Israeli war crimes—war crimes that have led to countless fatalities, the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, the collective punishment of displaced Palestinians for voting for a party that refuses to accept Israeli ethnic cleansing as legitimate, the displacement of millions of Iraqis—but is prepared to investigate the events surrounding the death of two South Korean civilians! A court that ignores the major crimes of the strong while investigating crimes that—even if they had been truly committed—would be microscopic in comparison, is an abomination against reason, justice and humanity. [11]

While its surface mandate may be the pursuit of justice, the ICC is every bit as much a part of the apparatus of imperialist domination as the US military and NATO are; its justice that of the powerful against the weak; its mandate to demonize the resisters and trundle them off to jail, while the imperialist architects of war crimes on a grand scale furnish the court with its prosecutors, direction, and agenda.

1. For sources see Stephen Gowans, “Wrong country blamed for artillery exchange on Korean peninsula”, what’s left, November 24, 2010 and “North Korea attacks South Korea…or is it the other way around?” What’s left, November 23, 2010.

2. Tim Beal, “Fire fight at Yeonpyeong: the manufacturing of crisis”, The Pyongyang Report, Vol 12 No 1 December 2010.

3. In order to enforce its claim to territorial waters, Pyongyang must contest the South’s exercise of military force in its waters, or its claim will be weakened. Moreover, failure to respond resolutely to the challenge would invite the South to take further liberties. See “US Ultimately to Blame for Korean Skirmishes in Yellow Sea”, what’s left, December 5, 2010.

4. See the following by Gregory Elich: “The Sinking of the Cheonan, Reviewing the Evidence,” globalresearch.ca, July 30, 2010 and “The Cheonan Incident. America’s Pretext for Threatening North Korea”, globalresearch.ca, December 6, 2010.

5. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.

6. See Stephen Gowans, “The sinking of the Cheonan: Another Gulf of Tonkin incident”, what’s left, May 20, 2010.

7. See Elich.

8. Nicole Finnemann, “The sinking of the Cheonan”, Korea Economic Institute, April 1, 2010.

9. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.

10. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.

11. I recognize that the ICC can only prosecute citizens of signatory countries or those of countries the UN Security Council—many of whose permanent members are not signatories themselves—direct the court to investigate. But this doesn’t make the actions of the court in investigating events surrounding the deaths of two civilians while ignoring large scale war crimes which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions, any less ludicrous or any less an abomination against reason, justice and humanity.

US Ultimately to Blame for Korean Skirmishes in Yellow Sea

By Stephen Gowans

There has been a lot written about the escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, tensions touched off by the South’s firing artillery shells into disputed waters in the Yellow Sea. Much of the commentary—including my own–has only tangentially addressed the key issue: how the United States’ unilateral drawing of a sea border in 1953 has thrust both sides into the position of having to continually climb to the brink of war to enforce overlapping claims to territorial waters.

The author of this tragedy—as so many other tragedies in Korea– is Washington. At the end of the Korean War, the United States and North Korea agreed that five islands, including Baengnyeong Island, in whose shallow waters the South Korean warship Cheonan sank in March, and Yeonpyeong Island, at the center of the recent exchange of artillery fire between the two sides, would remain under the South’s control. But they did not agree on a maritime demarcation line. The United States wanted to base the line on a three-nautical-mile limit, then the norm, while the North insisted on a 12-nautical-mile limit, which, by the 1970s, would become the standard in international customary law. The United States unilaterally drew a demarcation line, called the Northern Limit Line, based on a three-nautical-mile limit. In 1955, the North claim territorial waters based on a 12-nautical-mile limit.

Baengnyeong Island is only 10 miles from the North Korean coast but 120 miles from the South Korean mainland! Yeonpyeong Island is only eight miles from North Korea, and is home to a garrison of 1,000 South Korean marines. By the standards of international customary law, both islands belong to the North.

Having created a basis for unending conflict by unilaterally imposing a western maritime frontier, Washington has ensured that the intersection of the two side’s claimed territorial waters has been the site of numerous clashes. In 1999, the two Koreas’ warships skirmished over their competing maritime territorial claims. In the battle, two North Korean warships were sunk and 30 North Korean sailors lost their lives. Seventy were wounded. In clashes in 2002, a South Korean warship sank, with six lives lost. In November of last year, a North Korean naval vessel went down in flames after a battle with a South Korean warship. In March, the South Korean corvette Cheonan sunk off Baengnyeong Island, only 10 miles from the North Korean coast. The South accused the North of torpedoing the ship, but Pyongyang vehemently denied the charge. That North Korea would sink a South Korean warship operating close to its coast—that any country would attack a warship of a hostile state operating in its waters–is not implausible. Seoul’s charge that the North was the culprit therefore had a ring of truth to it, but there is evidence which points to the ship either running aground or hitting an old mine. In August, the North fired 110 artillery rounds near Yeonpyeong. And only weeks ago a South Korean warship fired warning shots at a North Korean fishing vessel that had crossed the Northern Limit Line. “This is a no man’s land,” observes Korea scholar Bruce Cumings. “You have an incident waiting to happen.”

The key to why the North and South regularly clash in these waters lies in the choices Washington’s unilateral border fixing inevitably create. Pyongyang and Seoul can either enforce sovereignty over their overlapping territorial claims through military means. Or not, in which case they cede sovereignty. The North could avoid confrontation with the South if it simply accepted the Northern Limit Line. Likewise, the South could avoid confrontation with the North, if it accepted a sea border based on international customary law. But neither side plans to capitulate, and so both sides carry out military activity in waters the other slide claims as its own. Failing to do this—and choosing not to respond to the other side’s provocations—would amount to an implicit recognition that the waters belong to the other side.

This can be seen in two incidents that happened roughly one year apart. Late last year, the North threatened to fire artillery into the disputed waters. The South denounced the threat as a brazen provocation, and warned that it would respond resolutely. Seoul’s agitation, reported The New York Times, was sparked by concern that if the North carried through with its threat it would “enforce its claims to an area currently held by the South.” The only way the South could contest the North’s sovereignty enforcement action was to counter-attack. Failing to do so would implicitly recognize the North’s territorial claim to the waters.

Last month, the roles were reversed. Now it was the South threatening to fire artillery into the same waters and it was the North denouncing the planned action as an abominable provocation. And the North’s reason for agitation was exactly the same as the South’s one year earlier. As the North Korean Foreign Ministry explained on November 24: “The ulterior aim sought by the (South) is to create the impression that the (North) side recognized the waters off the islet as their ‘territorial waters’, in case that there was no physical counter-action on the part of the former. “

In both cases, the firing of artillery into the disputed waters was seen as a sovereignty enforcement action by the other side. In order to counter the claim—and enforce its own sovereignty over the waters–the other side had to respond militarily. This is so because, by definition, a country’s boundaries represent the area in which its government exercises a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. The clashes in the Yellow Sea can be viewed as one side trying to demonstrate that it exercises a monopoly over the use of force in the contested area, and the other side trying to do the same.

As we know, the South did fire into the disputed waters, provoking a North Korean response, as Seoul surely knew must come. Indeed, the North had issued stern warnings that it would retaliate. While some news reports said the South fired toward the North, thus making the provocation all the more flagrant, Pyongyang acknowledged that, on the contrary, the South fired away from the North Korean mainland, but still “inside the territorial waters of the (North) no matter in which direction (the South Korean shells were) fired.”

Being based on international customary law, the North’s claim to the disputed waters is superior to that of the South, which rests on an outdated norm, and Washington’s unilateral border fixing. Pyongyang has urged Washington repeatedly to sign a peace treaty to replace the armistice which brought open hostilities to an end in 1953—and which leaves the two Koreas technically at war. Settling the disputed western sea border would be part of a formal peace. But Washington regularly rejects Pyongyang’s pleas for an official end to the war. After one such request, then Secretary of State Colin Powell replied, “We don’t do non-aggression pacts or treaties, things of that nature.” And after the latest skirmish, Washington rejected China’s call for discussions to defuse the tensions. Instead, it escalated tension by dispatching the aircraft carrier George Washington to conduct joint military exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, including in waters China declares as its own.

In 1945 Washington drew a border bisecting Korea. It later set up a puppet government in the South to crush the People’s Committees that Koreans had organized to govern their country after decades of Japanese colonial rule. The People’s Committees were allowed to thrive in the North, and in 1948 formed the basis of a new government led by Kim Il-Sung, a famed guerilla leader who had fought the Japanese. In the South, Washington restored Japanese collaborators to positions of prominence. Divided by Washington, the two Koreas, one anti-imperialist, fiercely independent and progressive, the other a near fascist state of collaborators with Japanese colonialism and later U.S. neocolonialism, were set against each other. And so they remain today, and will remain, regularly climbing to the brink of war in the Yellow Sea as the North challenges a unilaterally imposed sea border—one at odds with international customary law–and the South seeks to enforce it.

Wrong country blamed for artillery exchange on Korean peninsula

By Stephen Gowans

While North Korea has been blamed for Tuesday’s exchange of artillery fire on the Korean peninsula, a close reading of news reports shows that it was South Korea that created a tinderbox and then provided the spark.

The incident happened along the Northern Limit Line, a Western sea border unilaterally drawn by the United States at the end of the Korean War and never accepted by the North. The Northern Limit Line has been the site of a number of skirmishes between ROK and DPRK naval forces.

A year ago, the countries’ warships clashed in the disputed area, with a North Korean warship going down in flames. “In 1999, a North Korean ship went down with thirty sailors lost and maybe seventy wounded” in the same area. [1] The contested border is not part of the Armistice Agreement that brought active hostilities to an end.

The backdrop for the latest incident was the South’s mobilizing 70,000 troops, 50 warships, 90 helicopters, 500 warplanes and 600 tanks in war-games exercises the North had vigorously objected to. Pyongyang described the exercises—which also involved the US Marines and the US Air Force–as “simulating an invasion of the North”, “a means to provoke a war” and “a rehearsal for an invasion.” Western press reports and US government officials dismissed Pyongyang’s anxiety over the war-games as overblown, pointing out that the exercise had been announced in advance. But advance notice hardly lessens the potential threat of massing troops, or makes the North Korean military’s task of distinguishing between war-games and preparation for an invasion any easier.

With the North Koreans already on edge, South Korea acted to heighten the tension.

According to an Associated Press report:

“The skirmish began Tuesday when North Korea warned the South to halt military drills near their sea border…When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into disputed waters…the North retaliated by shelling the small island of Yeonpyeong…” [2]

The South Korean newspaper, The Hankyoreh, carried a similar report.

“Prior to the incident the South Korean military carried out a firing exercise…in the (disputed) area around Yeonpyeong Island and Baengnyeong Island…North Korea sent a message Tuesday morning that it would not tolerate firing in its territorial waters.” [3]

The New York Times noted that South Korean “artillery units had been firing from a battery on the South Korean island of Baeknyeongdo, close to the North Korean coast” and that “the South acknowledged firing test shots in the (disputed) area.” [4]

These press reports show that South Korea acted to inflame an already volatile situation. While most media reports obscured the point, South Korea fired the first shots.

The South regularly mounts war-games drills directed at North Korea, keeping the North on a continual war footing and in a constant state of high alert. North Korea’s response to the provocation is being used to justify a build-up of US forces in the region, and more joint ROK-US exercises.

“President Obama and South Korea’s president agreed…to hold joint military exercises as a first response,” reported the New York Times. “The exercise will include sending the aircraft carrier George Washington and a number of accompanying ships into the region…” [5]

Earlier this year, the United States and South Korea used the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, as an excuse to ratchet up military pressure on North Korea. The warship appears to have run aground in the same area in which the latest incident occurred. Seoul and Washington blamed North Korea for the sinking, but the evidence South Korea brought forward in a report authored by itself and its allies is disputed within South Korea and has been questioned by an official Russian investigation. North Korea vehemently denies it sunk the warship.

The latest South Korean provocation may be part of a larger US-ROK campaign to escalate military pressure on North Korea, with the aim of forcing Pyongyang to divert more of its limited resources to defense, thereby crippling North Korea’s prospects for development and possibly ushering in the collapse of the country. Washington has long followed a practice of isolating, blockading and using military threats to intimidate countries that have broken free of imperialist domination. This isn’t an isolated incident, in which an unpredictable and bellicose North Korea behaves badly to extract concessions from the West–as the predictably anti-North Korea Western media put it–but part of a larger pattern of the West seeking the DPRK’s destruction through a program of escalating diplomatic isolation, economic warfare and military provocations.

1. “Historian Bruce Cumings: US Stance on Korea Ignores Tensions Rooted in 65-Year-Old Conflict; North Korea Sinking Could Be Response to November ’09 South Korea Attack”, Democracy Now, May 27, 2010.

2. Hyung-Jin Kim and Kwang-Tae Kim, “Tensions high as North, South Korea trade shelling”, The Associated Press, November 23, 2010.

3. Kwon Hyuk-chul, “President Lee has changed his position from controlled response to manifold retaliation”, The Hankyoreh, November 24, 2010.

4. Mark McDonald, “Crisis Status’ in South Korea After North Shells Island” The New York Times, November 23, 2010.

5. David E. Sanger, “U.S. to send carrier for joint exercises off Korea”, The New York Times, November 23, 2010.

North Korea attacks South Korea…or is it the other way around?

By Stephen Gowans

If you read Mark McDonald’s article in The New York Times, “‘Crisis Status’ in South Korea After North Shells Island”, the answer depends on whether you paid attention to the headline, the expert commentary, and the tone of the article, or whether you paid attention to the facts.

If you paid attention to the former then North Korea attacked South Korea.

If you paid attention to the latter, the opposite is true.

Here are the facts McDonald reported.

o 70,000 South Korean troops were beginning a military drill…sharply criticized by Pyongyang as “simulating an invasion of the North” and “a means to provoke a war.”

o ROK artillery units fired toward the DPRK from a battery close to the North Korean coast. The South acknowledges firing the shots.

o The DPRK replied.

Shouldn’t the headline read: ‘Crisis Status’ in North Korea after South Korea Mobilizes 70,000 Troops and Shells the North’?

The sinking of the Cheonan: Another Gulf of Tonkin incident

By Stephen Gowans

While the South Korean government announced on May 20 that it has overwhelming evidence that one of its warships was sunk by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine, there is, in fact, no direct link between North Korea and the sunken ship. And it seems very unlikely that North Korea had anything to do with it.

That’s not my conclusion. It’s the conclusion of Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence. Won told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April, less than two weeks after the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sank in waters off Baengnyeong Island, that there was no evidence linking North Korea to the Cheonan’s sinking. (1)

South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo (2), while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected…(in) the waters where the accident took place.” (3)

Notice he said “accident.”

Soon after the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, Defense Minister Kim Tae-young ruled out a North Korean torpedo attack, noting that a torpedo would have been spotted, and no torpedo had been spotted. Intelligence chief Won See-hoon, said there was no evidence linking North Korea to the Cheonan’s sinking.

Defense Ministry officials added that they had not detected any North Korean submarines in the area at the time of the incident. (4) According to Lee, “We didn’t detect any movement by North Korean submarines near” the area where the Cheonan went down. (5)

When speculation persisted that the Cheonan had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo, the Defense Ministry called another press conference to reiterate “there was no unusual North Korean activities detected at the time of the disaster.” (6)

A ministry spokesman, Won Tae-jae, told reporters that “With regard to this case, no particular activities by North Korean submarines or semi-submarines…have been verified. I am saying again that there were no activities that could be directly linked to” the Cheonan’s sinking. (7)

Rear Admiral Lee, the head of the marine operations office, added that, “We closely watched the movement of the North’s vessels, including submarines and semi-submersibles, at the time of the sinking. But military did not detect any North Korean submarines near the country’s western sea border.” (8)

North Korea has vehemently denied any involvement in the sinking.

So, a North Korean submarine is now said to have fired a torpedo which sank the Cheonan, but in the immediate aftermath of the sinking the South Korean navy detected no North Korean naval vessels, including submarines, in the area. Indeed, immediately following the incident defense minister Lee ruled out a North Korean torpedo attack, noting that a torpedo would have been spotted, and no torpedo had been spotted. (9)

The case gets weaker still.

It’s unlikely that a single torpedo could split a 1,200 ton warship in two. Baek Seung-joo, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis says that “If a single torpedo or floating mine causes a naval patrol vessel to split in half and sink, we will have to rewrite our military doctrine.” (10)

The Cheonan sank in shallow, rapidly running, waters, in which it’s virtually impossible for submarines to operate. “Some people are pointing the finger at North Korea,” notes Song Young-moo, a former South Korean navy chief of staff, “but anyone with knowledge about the waters where the shipwreck occurred would not draw that conclusion so easily.” (11)

Contrary to what looks like an improbable North-Korea-torpedo-hypothesis, the evidence points to the Cheonan splitting in two and sinking because it ran aground upon a reef, a real possibility given the shallow waters in which the warship was operating. According to Go Yeong-jae, the South Korean Coast Guard captain who rescued 56 of the stricken warship’s crew, he “received an order …that a naval patrol vessel had run aground in the waters 1.2 miles to the southwest of Baengnyeong Island, and that we were to move there quickly to rescue them.” (12)

Some members of South Korea’s opposition parties – which have been highly critical of the government for blaming North Korea for the disaster– “contend that the boat was sunk either by a ‘friendly fire’ torpedo during a training exercise or that it broke part while trying to get off a reef.” (13) Whatever the cause, they don’t believe the findings of the official inquiry.

So how is it that what looked like no North Korean involvement in the Cheonan’s sinking, according to the South Korean military in the days immediately following the incident, has now become, one and half months later, an open and shut case of North Korean aggression, according to government-appointed investigators?

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak is a North Korea-phobe who prefers a confrontational stance toward his neighbor to the north to the policy of peaceful coexistence and growing cooperation favored by his recent predecessors. His foreign policy rests on the goal of forcing the collapse of North Korea.

The answer has much to do with the electoral fortunes of South Korea’s ruling Grand National Party, and the party’s need to marshal support for a tougher stance on the North. Lurking in the wings are US arms manufacturers who stand to profit if South Korean president Lee Myung-bak wins public backing for beefed up spending on sonar equipment and warships to deter a North Korean threat – all the more likely with the Cheonan incident chalked up to North Korean aggression.

Lee is a North Korea-phobe who prefers a confrontational stance toward his neighbor to the north to the policy of peaceful coexistence and growing cooperation favored by his recent predecessors (and by Pyongyang, as well. It’s worth mentioning that North Korea supports a policy of peace and cooperation. South Korea, under its hawkish president, does not.) Fabricating a case against the North serves Lee in a number of ways. If voters in the South can be persuaded that the North is indeed a menace – and it looks like this is exactly what is happening – Lee’s hawkish policies will be embraced as the right ones for present circumstances. This will prove immeasurably helpful in upcoming mayoral and gubernatorial elections in June. (14)

What’s more, Lee’s foreign policy rests on the goal of forcing the collapse of North Korea. When he took office in February 2008, he set about reversing a 10-year-old policy of unconditional aid to the North. He has also refused to move ahead on cross-border economic projects. (15) Lee’s goal, as Selig Harrison, the US establishment’s foremost liberal expert on Korea describes it, is to “once again [seek] the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.” (16) Forcing the collapse of North Korea was the main policy of past right-wing and military governments to which Lee’s government is historically linked. The claim that the sinking of the Cheonan is due to an unprovoked North Korean torpedo attack makes it easier for Lee to drum up support for his confrontational stance.

But it does more than that. It also helps Lee move ahead with his goal of re-unifying the Korean peninsula by engineering the collapse of the North. Lee has used the Cheonan incident to: cut off trade with the North; block the North’s use of the South’s shipping lanes; argue for stepped up international sanctions against Pyongyang; call for the beefing up of the South’s military; and issue a virtual declaration of war, branding North Korea the South’s principal foe and announcing that “It is now time for the North Korean regime to change.” (17) Seoul already spends $20 billion per year on its armed forces, almost three times more than the $7 billion Pyongyang allocates to military spending. South Korea has one of the most miserly social welfare systems in the industrialized world, in part because it spends so much on defense. (18) Only 28 percent of the South’s working population is covered by a government pension plan, a state of affairs that has given rise to “’silver’ job fairs, established to find jobs for people aged 60 and over.” (19) Even so, the South’s military spending as a percentage of its GDP is a drop in the bucket compared to the North’s. With a smaller economy, North Korea struggles (and fails) to keep up with its more formidably armed neighbor, channeling a crushingly large percentage of its GDP into defense. It is caught in a difficult bind in which it not only has to defend its borders against South Korea, but against the 30,000 US troops stationed on the Korean peninsula and twice as many more in nearby Japan. By expanding the South’s military budget, and using the Cheonan affair to put the country on a virtual war footing, Lee forces the North to either divert even more of its limited resources to its military – a reaction which will ratchet up the misery factor inside the North as guns take even more of a precedence over butter – or leave itself inadequately equipped to defend itself.

This meshes well with calls from the RAND Corporation for South Korea to buy sensors to detect North Korean submarines and more warships to intercept North Korean naval vessels. (20) An unequivocal US-lackey – protesters have called the security perimeter around Lee’s office “the U.S. state of South Korea” (21) – Lee would be pleased to hand US corporations fat contracts to furnish the South Korean military with more hardware. Lee’s right-wing party and US military contractors win, while North Koreans and the bulk of Koreans of the south are sacrificed on the altar of South Korean militarism.

The United States, too, has motivations to fabricate a case against North Korea. One is to justify the continued presence, 65 years after the end of WWII, of US troops on Japanese soil. Many Japanese bristle at what is effectively a permanent occupation of their country by more than a token contingent of US troops. There are 60,000 US soldiers, airmen and sailors in Japan. Washington, and the Japanese government – which, when it isn’t willingly collaborating with its own occupiers, is forced into submission by the considerable leverage Washington exercises — justifies the US troop presence through the sheer sophistry of presenting North Korea as an ongoing threat. The claim that North Korea sunk the Cheonan in an unprovoked attack strengthens Washington’s case for occupation. Not surprisingly, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has seized on the Cheonan incident to underline “the importance of the America-Japanese alliance, and the presence of American troops on Japanese soil.” (22)

Given these political realities, it comes as no surprise that from the start members of Lee’s party blamed the sinking of the Cheonan on a North Korean torpedo, (23) just as members of the Bush administration immediately blamed 9/11 on Saddam Hussein, and then proceeded to look for evidence to substantiate their case, in the hopes of justifying an already planned invasion. (Later, the Bush administration fabricated an intelligence dossier on Iraq’s banned weapons.) In fact, the reason the ministry of defense felt the need to reiterate there was no evidence of a North Korean link was the persistent speculation of GNP politicians that North Korea was the culprit. Lee himself, ever hostile to his northern neighbor, said his “intuition” told him that North Korea was to blame. (24) Today, opposition parties accuse Lee of using “red scare” tactics to garner support as the June 2 elections draw near. (25) And leaders of South Korea’s four main opposition parties, as well as a number of civil groups, have issued a joint statement denouncing the government’s findings as untrustworthy. Woo Sang-ho, a spokesman for South Korea’s Democratic Party has called the probe results “insufficient proof and questioned whether the North was involved at all.” (26)

Lee announced, even before the inquiry rendered its findings, that a task force will be launched to overhaul the national security system and bulk up the military to prepare itself for threats from North Korea. (27) He even prepared a package of sanctions against the North in the event the inquiry confirmed what his intuition told him. (28) No wonder civil society groups denounced the inquiry’s findings, arguing that “The probe started after the conclusions had already been drawn.” (29)

Jung Sung-ki, a staff reporter for The Korean Times, has raised a number of questions about the inquiry’s findings. The inquiry concluded that “two North Korean submarines, one 300-ton Sango class and the other 130-ton Yeono class, were involved in the attack. Under the cover of the Sango class, the midget Yeono class submarine approached the Cheonan and launched the CHT-02D torpedo manufactured by North Korea.” But “’Sango class submarines…do not have an advanced system to guide homing weapons,’ an expert at a missile manufacturer told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity. ‘If a smaller class submarine was involved, there is a bigger question mark.’” (30)

“Rear Adm. Moon Byung-ok, spokesman for [the official inquiry] told reporters, ‘We confirmed that two submarines left their base two or three days prior to the attack and returned to the port two or three days after the assault.’” But earlier “South Korean and U.S. military authorities confirmed several times that there had been no sign of North Korean infiltration in the” area in which the Cheonan went down. (31)

“In addition, Moon’s team reversed its position on whether or not there was a column of water following an air bubble effect” (caused by an underwater explosion.) “Earlier, the team said there were no sailors who had witnessed a column of water. But during [a] briefing session, the team said a soldier onshore at Baengnyeong Island witnessed ‘an approximately 100-meter-high pillar of white,’ adding that the phenomenon was consistent with a shockwave and bubble effect.” (32)

The inquiry produced a torpedo propeller recovered by fishing vessels that it said perfectly match the schematics of a North Korean torpedo. “But it seemed that the collected parts had been corroding at least for several months.” (33)

Finally, the investigators “claim the Korean word written on the driving shaft of the propeller parts was the same as that seen on a North Korean torpedo discovered by the South …seven years ago.” But the “’word is not inscribed on the part but written on it,’ an analyst said, adding that “’the lettering issue is dubious.’” (34)

On August 2, 1964, the United States announced that three North Vietnamese torpedo boats had launched an unprovoked attacked on the USS Maddox, a US Navy destroyer, in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident handed US president Lyndon Johnson the Congressional support he needed to step up military intervention in Vietnam. In 1971, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon report, revealed that the incident had been faked to provide a pretext for escalated military intervention. There had been no attack.

The Cheonan incident has all the markings of another Gulf of Tonkin incident. And as usual, the aggressor is accusing the intended victim of an unprovoked attack to justify a policy of aggression under the pretext of self-defense.

1. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010.
2. Nicole Finnemann, “The sinking of the Cheonan”, Korea Economic Institute, April 1, 2010. http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/kei/issues/2010-04-01/1.html
3. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
4. “Birds or North Korean midget submarine?” The Korea Times, April 16, 2010.
5. Ibid.
6. “Military plays down N.K. foul play”, The Korea Herald, April 2, 2010.
7. Ibid.
8. “No subs near Cheonan: Ministry”, JoongAng Daily, April 2, 2010.
9. Jean H. Lee, “South Korea says mine from the North may have sunk warship”, The Washington Post, March 30, 2010.
10. “What caused the Cheonan to sink?” The Chosun Ilbo, March 29, 2010.
11. Ibid.
12. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
13. Barbara Demick, “In South Korea, competing reactions to sinking of warship”, The Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2010.
14. Framing the Cheonan sinking as an act of unprovoked north Korean aggression did not benefit Lee Myung-bak and his GNP party as much as Lee and the party may have hoped. Indeed, the GNP was disappointed with its showing in the June 2 elections. Even so, on the eve of the election, Martin Fackler, writing in the New York Times of June 1, 2010 (Ship sinking aids ruling party in S. Korean vote) noted that:

“Soon after taking office two years ago, Mr. Lee appeared at risk of losing public support, as he faced mass demonstrations on the streets of Seoul against the import of United States beef. Now, political experts are talking about the “Cheonan effect,” as polls show that more than half of expected voters approve of the president and his tougher line toward the North.

“Nowhere is the current upwelling of popular support more apparent than in polling for the local elections to be held across South Korea on Wednesday. Mr. Lee’s Grand National Party, whose candidates once faced tight races in some districts, now appears poised to sweep the most important races, including hotly contested mayoral elections in Seoul and the nearby port of Incheon.

“Kim Moon-soo, the conservative governor of a province outside Seoul, just two weeks ago was in an uphill battle for re-election against a liberal opponent. Now, polls show him with a comfortable 15 percentage point lead. ”

Fackler continued:

“Politicians and political analysts agree that voters decisively turned to the Grand National Party after the announcement on May 20 of the results of an international inquiry into the sinking that found North Korea responsible. Political analysts said the results were enough to persuade many undecided voters to swing to the conservatives, who are seen as stronger on defense.”


15. Blaine Harden, “Brawl Near Koreas’ Border,” The Washington Post, December 3, 2008.
16. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
17. “Full text of President’s Lee’s national address”, The Korea Times, May 24, 2010.
18. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.

According to Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, writing in The New York Times of May 30, 2010 (“U.S. aid to South Korea with naval defense plan”), there are 28,500 US troops in south Korea. South Korea has between 600,000 and 700,000 troops. The North has 1.2 million active-duty military personnel, but “many are poorly trained, or put to work building housing.” The core of the north Korean military is comprised of 80,000 special operations forces.

Hence, there are about 1 million combat ready US and south Korean troops on the Korean peninsula posed against slightly more north Korean troops, many of whom are performing non-military functions. The rough equality in number of troops is preponderated by the sophistication of south Korean’s military equipment and its ability to call on US military superiority in the event of a conflict.

19. Su-Hyun Lee, “Aging and seeking work in South Korea,” The New York Times, September 11, 2009.
20. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, The Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.

Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, writing in The New York Times of May 30, 2010 (“U.S. aid to South Korea with naval defense plan”) noted that:

(i) senior American officials were surprised “how easily [the Cheonan] was sunk by what an international investigation concluded was a North Korean torpedo fired from a midget submarine”; and

(ii) the waters in which the Cheonan sunk were considered too shallow to allow a submarine to operate and therefore did not warrant close monitoring.

There are two inferences that can be drawn from these observations:

(A) The inquiry’s findings are improbable;
(B) The north Koreans are devious and more formidable than we thought and therefore the south Koreans need to buy monitoring equipment from US arms manufacturers to plug this national security hole.

Predictably, The New York Times reporters opted for inference B. Inference A wasn’t considered, presumably unthinkable in the newspaper’s newsroom.

21. The New York Times, June 12, 2008.
22. Mark Landler, “Clinton condemns attack on South Korean Ship”, The New York Times, May 21, 2010.
23. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010.

According to the JoongAng Daily of May 29, 2010 (“Probe member summoned on false rumor allegations”) Shin Sang-cheol, a member of the taskforce that investigated the sinking of the Cheonan, but who was replaced for “arousing public mistrust in the probe”, “has repeatedly claimed that the sinking was just an accident, and that the South had tampered with evidence to blame the North.” Shin, linked to the opposition Democratic Party, served on a south Korean patrol boat in the Yellow Sea as a Navy second lieutenant. Later he worked for seven years at a shipbuilding firm.

Meanwhile, Park Sun-won, former south Korean president Roh Moo-hyun’s secretary for national security, and now a visiting fellow at the Brooking Institution, has accused the Lee administration of concealing information about the sinking.

Both men are under investigation by south Korean authorities for “spreading false rumors,” clearly an effort by Seoul to deter anyone in the South from pointing out the weaknesses of the inquiry’s findings.

Shin’s and Park’s motivations for calling the probe’s findings into question, however, may be the same as the motivations of GNP politicians for accusing the north Koreans of sinking the warship: partisan political advantage. Both Shin and Park are associated with the Democratic Party, whose electoral fortunes in the impending elections are likely to suffer as a result of the GNP concocting a “red-scare” incident to rally support around. It’s in their partisan interests to poke holes in the inquiry’s findings.

24. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
25. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010; Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korean sailors say blast that sank their ship came from outside vessel”, The New York Times, April 8, 2010.
26. Cho Jae-eun, “Probe satisfies some, others have doubts”, JoongAng Daily, May 21, 2010.
27. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, The Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
28. “Seoul prepares sanctions over Cheonan sinking”, The Choson Ilbo, May 13, 2010.
29. Cho Jae-eun, “Probe satisfies some, others have doubts”, JoongAng Daily, May 21, 2010.
30. Jung Sung-ki, “Questions raised about ‘smoking gun'”, The Korea Times, May 20, 2010.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid.

Most of the articles cited here are posted on Tim Beal’s DPRK- North Korea website, http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~caplabtb/dprk/, an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Korea.

Updated June 3, 2010.