Would Tensions in Korea Over Warship Sinking Lead to War?

On 26th March this year the Cheonan, a South Korean warship with a crew of 104 onboard, mysteriously exploded and sank almost immediately with a loss of 46 lives. The others were subsequently rescued at sea.

This incident occurred in the Yellow Sea, at a stretch of waters that has been claimed  by both South and North Korea to be within its territorial waters. It lies 16 km from the North Korean coast and 160 km from the South Korean mainland. Regrettably, the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 did not cover the sea boundary line dividing the two Koreas. Since then tensions had from time to time arisen between both sides and had led to many naval clashes, the latest of which took place barely two months before the sinking of the Cheonan. These waters are rich fishing grounds and are regularly patrolled by the navies of both sides. Also, at the time this war ship was sunk, a joint South Korea-United States anti-submarine naval exercise was being held 75 nautical miles from the scene of this incident, despite objections of the other Korea.

The sinking created a national uproar in South Korea and the finger of accusation was understandably pointed at North Korea. However, the Seoul Government was initially cautious in not wanting to attribute the sinking to the hostile action of  North Korea until more concrete evidence was established to prove that the warship was indeed sunk by them. After the Cheonan was successfully lifted from the seabed, the South Korean Government and its staunch ally the US then convened an international investigation panel, with members representing Australia, Britain, Canada, South Korea, Sweden and United States, to ascertain the cause of the sinking. In late May the panel concluded from the technical and scientific evidence adduced before it that the Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine, similar to the one employed by them in 2003 which the Seoul Government had recovered from the sea.

This finding led to international condemnation of North Korea, especially among South Korea’s allies and countries friendly to them. The North Korean Government emphatically denied their role in this incident and put forth their own theory as to why and how the sinking occurred. China, North Korea’s long time ally also disputed the cause of the sinking which could have been due to the South Korean-American naval exercise activities at the Yellow Sea. An opinion survey conducted in South Korea showed that one in four polled believed that the sinking had nothing to do with North Korea. A research team from the University of Maryland in United States also did not agree with the official findings of the international panel, based on the technical evidence they had relied on.

Armed with the panel findings the Seoul Government  declared that they would take strongest counteractions against North Korea and would defend itself in the event of further military provocation from its arch-enemy. It would also refer this matter to the United Nations’ Security Council with a view to its condemning North Korea over the sinking of the Cheonan and sanctioning international punitive actions against them. The North Korean Government reacted angrily to South Korea’s threat which they denounced as constituting acts of war and  that they would strike back with all its military might and other means at its disposal.

As tensions over the Cheonan episode reached a fever pitch, it did seem possible that a major war could break out between the two Koreas, which might also involve their respective allies, with devastating consequences not only for the two protagonists, but also for the world. Realising the explosive situation and the danger of escalating it, the Security Council urged both sides “to refrain from any act that would further heighten tensions in the Korean Peninsular and it would continue its consultations with both states. Fortunately, sanity prevailed between Seoul and Pyongyang and they had refrained from taking any aggravating actions that could lead to war. With the passing of the ensuing months, the likelihood of war, for the time being, seemed to have receded. However, the strong stands taken by both sides over the warship sinking remains undiminished, pending the outcome of the Security Council’s resolution on this matter.

More than three months after the Cheonan sinking was referred to it by South Korea, the Security Council finally came out with a resolution condemning the sinking of the warship, but did not blame North Korea or any other country as the guilty party. It went on to add that this resolution “underscores the importance of preventing further attacks or hostilities against South Korea”. The resolution had disappointed South Korea and its allies, but was enthusiastically received by North Korea as a “diplomatic victory” for them. Some international political analysts were of the view that the resolution was crafted in this way so as to facilitate the resumption of the long stalled six-party conference between the two Koreas and their respective allies aimed at establishing a nuclear-free Korean Peninsular on terms that would be acceptable to all parties concerned. This prediction was proved to be correct as North Korea immediately confirmed that they would now agree to the re-convening of the said conference that would help bring stability to the two Korean states and elsewhere. After the UN resolution, South Korea and the US reaffirmed that the interrupted naval exercise would be resumed soon, despite protestations  from North Korea and China. We shall wait and see if the danger of war arising from this episode has finally been aborted.

The meteoric rise of South Korea from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War  to become a First World nation in 1980s is matched by only the rise of Japan in Asia in the late 1960s. In 1953 South Korea’s GDP was less than US$100, comparable to the then poorest Asian and African countries. At  more than US$28,000 today, it is not that far behind that of Britain and France which are among the richer countries in Europe. It is also a member of the OECD, a collection of affluent industrialised countries. That is not all. South Korea is now the 12th largest economy in the world, and is among the global leaders in shipbuilding, micro chips, television , mobile phone and motor vehicle productions. Its multinational brand names like Samsung, Hyundai-Kia, LG and others are household names for quality and reliability throughout the world. It also has one of the world’s highest internet and mobile phone users. In the 2007 world financial upheaval, China and South Korea were the first of the major economies to come out of recession and to resume their very impressive economic growth which have continued into the present time.

Unfortunately, Korea is still divided into two separate states, a legacy of WWII. Although ultimate merger between these two ideologically poles apart states has been talked about between the two Korean governments since the last decade, its realisation remains a distant dream and unlikely to be fulfilled for many years to come.

My wife and I had a very enjoyable holiday in South Korea in 1997 in the midst of the Asian Financial Crisis, which adversely affected its economy. It had to be rescued by a multi-billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund in order to get on top of this predicament. To its credit, it came out of this crisis after only one year and was able to pay back the loan without financial strains. We were most struck by its dynamic, creative, efficient and hardworking people and thoroughly enjoyed its scenic beauty and its numerous ancient villages where the traditional way of life still thrives. Our memorable trip there has left a deep impression on us and we look forward to going back there again in the near future. Upon my return from South Korea, I wrote an article of this visit, which was published in Singapore’s Sunday Times in 1997, and I would like to share it  with my readers. It appears immediately after this posting.

Lam Pin Foo

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