On March 26, 2010, North Korea fired a torpedo, sinking a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, in the Yellow Sea, in waters South Korea considered open water. The Cheonan was in the area near Baengnyeong Island, 130 miles northwest of Seoul, to assure the safety of crab fishermen. Yearly, in March and April, crabs are plentiful in these waters near the line that marks the border between North and South Korea, fought over in the Korean War. North Korea doesn't recognize this border nor the demilitarized zone. As a result, many South Korean ships have been fired upon and sunk.
Following the sinking of the Cheonan, rescuers pulled 58 survivors from the water; 46 crewmen were killed in the incident. The original report indicated that the ship was on patrol and began sinking at 9 PM, the result of a hole in its stern, below the waterline. At that time it is reported that the United States was not asked for assistance. It was soon determined by several agencies that a North Korean torpedo had caused the sinking.
Prior to this torpedoing, tensions between the Koreas had seemed to be easing, North Korea needed food supplies and fertilizer from the South. However in January, South Korea responded to North Korean artillery fire during military exercises with warning shots, and in November there was an exchange of fire as a North Korean vessel crossed the maritime border. North Korean President Kim Jong-Il, recently turned 67, denied that the North was involved in the deadly attack on the Cheonan. He warned that retaliation would mean "all-out war."
At this point we consider the possibility that this action by North Korea is not merely another sinking due to the lack of agreement on the dividing line between the North and South, but rather a prelude to war. The North Korean mandate that the South must not retaliate gives substance to that likelihood.
The United States and allied countries are stepping up already massive sanctions on North Korea, but North Korea prides itself on a policy of "juche", or self-reliance. South Korea has plans to airlift leaflets deploring North Korea's actions; but North Korea views such pamphleteering as hostile propaganda. South Korean military loudspeakers are now broadcasting to the North, but North Korea says it will open fire on the loudspeakers and destroy them. Pyongyang, the North Korean Capital city, and South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, have no diplomatic relations and technically remain at war following a 1953 truce which ended the three-year Korean War.
Observers were quick to note that possible strategies in retribution for the sinking of the Cheonan are heavily dependent on the participation of the China. If China should choose to oppose sanctions, or military intervention, the outlook may be grim. China is the key, and the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, has expressed deep regret over the loss of life that came from the sinking.
Hillary Clinton, American Secretary of State has had "very productive and detailed discussions about North Korea" (her words) with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Secretary of State Clinton traveled to Seoul last week (mid May, 2010) to discuss escalating tensions with South Korean officials. Directly prior to those meetings, Clinton was engaged in talks with Chinese officials for several days. Ms. Clinton expressed hopes that the U.S. and China could work within the international framework to find an "effective, appropriate response" to the sinking of the Cheonan.
However, on Wednesday, May 26, 2010, The New York Times published an article that dimmed the hopes of The U.S. and those expecting support from China. China does not accept the Western view ; measures sought at the Security Council predicted on Chinese support will have to be re-evaluated.
Secretary of State Clinton now defines China as a "veto-wielding member", a "North Korean ally", and "a nation likely to block any attempted new sanctions." But Mrs. Clinton did state: "I believe that the Chinese understand the seriousness of this issue and are willing to listen to the concerns expressed by both South Korea and the United States.” It is clear that China, while expressing compassion, opts to side with the aggressive North. An all-out war with the U.S. pledged to support one side, North Korea on the other, with China favoring the North Korean position, could have world shaking consequences.
President Obama has been actively in communication with China in recent days regarding this and other matters; however the work of Obama and Clinton has failed to bring the hoped for outcome.
From the BBC – Thursday, May 27, 2010
The streets of Seoul, S. Korea, are thick with protesters angered by threats and overtures from the North. North Korea has announced that emergency measures, usually in place to prevent an accidental sea clash have been scrapped. An official spokesman from Pyongyang, North Korea is quoted as saying: "In connection with this [blame from Seoul] we will completely stop using international maritime ultra-short wave walkie-talkies and will immediately cut off the communication line that was opened to handle an emergency situation." The North expresses displeasure at the blaming from Seoul for the torpedo attack in March. South Korea meanwhile is conducting anti-submarine drills and dropping depth charges in anticipation of Pyongyang hostility.
We will begin to see in the days ahead what will become of this sinking, this loss of life, and we hope that future escalation, future warfare can be avoided.