Tensions in Korea over claims that a warship was sunk by a torpedo
A South Korean Navy ship was sunk yesterday in a suspected torpedo attack by a North Korean submarine.
Several of the 104 crew members were killed last night and others went missing.
The drama near the disputed sea border between the two Koreas raised concerns that growing tensions between them could escalate into conflict.
Torpedo attack: A South Korean coastal defense ship patrols the country’s north coast (File Photo)
North Korea had previously threatened “unprecedented strikes”, including nuclear attacks, against its neighbor and the US, claiming they were planning to overthrow Kim Jong-il’s regime.
Relations between the two have recently been strained by disputes over cross-border tourism and a common economic zone.
There are fears in the south that the north is becoming increasingly unpredictable and dangerous.
As ships and helicopters searched the site of the sinking for survivors last night, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency meeting of security ministers in Seoul.
The incident took place in the Yellow Sea near Baeknyeong Island, South Korea’s westernmost point and a key military post.
The South Korean ship, the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan, was on a routine patrol when it was struck by an explosion near its stern.
There were reports that it had previously fired warning shots at an object to the north.
But South Korean officials downplayed initial reports of military action, saying they had no evidence of North Korean forces in the area.
They said the Cheonan could have fired her warning shots at a distant flock of birds that had formed an image on her radar.
Senior government officials later told South Korean media the ship could have hit a rock or been hit by an explosion on board.
Six Navy vessels and two Coast Guard vessels rushed to the scene, and the Department of Defense later said 58 crew members from the corvette had been rescued. Two had to be flown out for emergency medical care.
North Korea recently warned it would be beefing up its defenses in response to joint South Korea-US military exercises earlier this month. It had declared four naval fire zones near the sea border and deployed several rocket launchers. Two of the zones are in the Yellow Sea.
ACTION: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, center, speaks with officials today following the sinking of one of the country’s naval vessels
North Korea has never recognized the maritime boundary drawn unilaterally by the US-led United Nations command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The Yellow Sea was the scene of naval battles in 1999 – when 17 North Korean sailors died – and in 2002 when four South Korean sailors and at least 30 North Korean sailors died.
Last November, the two navies engaged in a brief firefight that left one North Korean sailor dead and three others wounded. A North Korean ship was left on fire.
In January, North Korea fired artillery into the disputed zones amid mounting international pressure to resume talks on its nuclear ambitions. Some analysts say the firing zones – and the recent escalation in military activity – could be a way to bolster their position in any talks.
In 2002, then-US President George Bush designated North Korea as an “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and Iran. But the Pyongyang regime was defiant, claiming the following year it had enough plutonium for atomic bombs.
In 2006, North Korea tested a long-range missile and last year claimed it conducted an underground nuclear test, prompting protests from the US, Russia and China.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il yesterday visited the Daeheungsan Machinery Plant in North Korea
KOREA, HALF A CENTURY OF CONFLICT
At the end of World War II, Korea was a unified country under Japanese occupation.
But after Japan’s defeat, the island was effectively divided, with Soviet troops occupying the north and American forces occupying the south.
The stage was set for a long and bitter confrontation between the capitalist West and the communist forces of Russia.
In 1948, northern leaders proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Soviets withdrew. Two years later, the South declared its independence. North Korea has invaded.
The war that followed lasted three years, left two million dead and devastated the country’s economy and infrastructure.
Hostilities eventually ceased when both sides agreed on a three-mile buffer zone between the two states.
But despite the truce, sporadic hostilities continued, the two tiny countries battling a bitter Cold War offshoot in a remote and neglected corner of the world.
The South, supported by the Americans, prospered. The North, however, has a far rockier history.
Originally ruled by Kim Il-song, the country’s supreme leader is now his son Kim Jong-il.
While his father had adhered to the terms of the 1953 armistice, his successor renounced them.
In 1996, against the backdrop of a devastating famine, Kim Jong-il announced that he would send troops to the demilitarized zone
In 2002, George W. Bush named North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” alongside other “rogue states” such as Iraq and Iran.
But Kim Jong-il was undeterred. Instead, Pyongyang made regular announcements about its arsenal, claiming in July 2003 that it had enough plutonium to begin making nuclear bombs.
In 2006, North Korea tested a long-range missile. Relations with the West soured again last year when neighbors accused the country of conducting another long-range missile test.
However, Pyongyang claimed the missile under investigation was carrying a communications satellite.
Later last year, the country admitted it had conducted its second underground nuclear test, prompting protests from the US, China and Russia.
And while the nuclear brinkmanship continued, there were regular squabbles with South Korea over border incursions and hostile intentions.
The sea border has caused particular tensions in recent months. South Korea claims the North has designated four areas as military firing zones and has deployed four rocket launchers near the sea in response.
Although South Korea still recognizes the northern boundary line established in 1953, the North has never accepted the boundary.