I typically avoid commenting on day-to-day issues but the media coverage of the latest spat between North and South Korea struck me as amusing. It shows that the difficulty of staying informed about world affairs increases in proportion to the incompetence of news services. Yesterday, a South Korean corvette (ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772)) suffered an explosion and sank near the South Korean island of Baengnyeong, which is just south of the Northern Limit Line and the scene of frequent naval skirmishes. Considering where the vessel was patrolling at the time and the damage that it sustained before sinking – an explosion in the aft, followed by a fire – it seems the likely victim of a North Korean torpedo. Apparently the wire services don’t like that idea.
An Associated Press piece by Jean H. Lee opens with this:
Word that a South Korean naval ship sank in the tense waters around the disputed maritime border with communist North Korea set off panic: The president convened an emergency meeting and the military dispatched a fleet of ships.
Five hours later, 58 sailors had been pulled to safety but some 40 others were missing, reports said. There was no indication early Saturday that North Korea was to blame for the ship’s demise, but troops kept a vigilant watch.
Seoul’s panic attack — hours after North Korea’s military threatened “unpredictable strikes” against the U.S. and South Korea — highlighted the fragility of peace on the divided Korean peninsula.
Panic attack? The RoK government reacts to the destruction of a noticeable portion of its naval strength, and that constitutes a “panic attack”? Were they supposed to file the matter under routine business and deal with it after breakfast and coffee? The article insinuates that the South Koreans were somehow overreacting. The piece concludes with a skeptical analysis:
The waters around Baeknyeong island are rocky, and some senior government officials speculated that the sinking may have been an accident, not an attack, South Korean media said.
“It’s looking more and more like it was just an accident that happens on a ship,” Carl Baker, an expert on Korean military relations at the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu, said by telephone.
He said Pyongyang was unlikely to attack the far more powerful South Korean military.
“The South Koreans are so much more capable these days than the North that it would be difficult for the miscalculation to happen because I think the North understands its lack of ability,” he said.
So according to this analysis, the Cheonan must have backed up onto a rock that had remained undiscovered after decades of vigilant naval patrolling, causing the stern to explode and the ship to catch fire and sink. According to Baker, that sort of thing is an ordinary “accident that happens on a ship.” The fact that the incident occurred near the Northern Limit Line is completely irrelevant.
What planet is Baker living on? The DPRK commits military provocations on a regular basis, regardless of its inferior capabilities. These are political actions designed to get attention.
Seoul does seem to be playing down the incident; after all, if they acknowledged it as a North Korean attack, they would be compelled to respond in some fashion. It’s clear that they don’t want to do this. Unfortunately, nobody has reported the story from this angle. A Reuters piece by Cho Mee-young reports the comments of a defense ministry spokesman:
“An unidentified reason caused a hole in the ship, which led to its sinking. Currently 58 have been rescued out of the total 104 on board. Rescue efforts are under way,” the ministry said.
“The ship fired a warning shot at an unidentified object, and the object was later suspected to have been a flock of birds. But we are checking.”
Why not just say it was swamp gas? Seoul’s version of events requires us to believe that their navy is crewed by the most incompetent sailors on the planet. In the same article:
Yonhap news agency quoted a presidential official as saying satellite pictures and other information showed no sign of the North Korean military in the area at the time of the sinking.
I doubt that South Korea has tasked its spy satellites with surveilling a patch of water. In any case, submarines don’t show up too well in optical satellite photographs. And is a “presidential official” a reliable source of intelligence analysis? Also in the same article:
The sinking comes as the impoverished North has become increasingly frustrated by its wealthy neighbor, which has given the cold-shoulder to recent attempts to reopen a lucrative tourist business on the northern side of the Cold War’s last frontier.
Thus, North Korea is anthropomorphized as a poor but pitiable would-be suitor whose advances are spurned by a snooty love interest. That explains everything.