Tensions in Korea over claims warship sunk by torpedo

A South Korean naval coastal defense vessel patrols the country's northern coast (file photo).

Tensions in Korea over claims warship sunk by torpedo

A South Korean naval vessel was sunk yesterday in what was feared to be a torpedo attack by a North Korean submarine.

Several of the 104 crew members were killed and others went missing last night.

The drama, close to the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas, raised concerns that rising tensions between them could escalate into conflict.

A South Korean naval coastal defense vessel patrols the country's northern coast (file photo).

Torpedo attack: A South Korean coastal defense ship patrols the country’s northern coast (photo image)

North Korea had previously threatened “unprecedented attacks,” including nuclear strikes, against its neighbor and the US, claiming they intended to overthrow Kim Jong-il’s regime.

Relations between the two have also been strained recently over disputes over cross-border tourism and a joint economic zone.

There is a fear in the South that the North is becoming increasingly capricious and dangerous.

As ships and helicopters searched for survivors at the scene of the sinking 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 an important military post.

The South Korean ship, the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan, was on routine patrol when it was hit by an explosion close to the 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 troops in the area.

They said the Cheonan could have fired his warning shots at a distant flock of birds that produced an image on his radar.

Senior government officials later told South Korean media that the ship could have hit a rock or could have been hit by an explosion on board.

Six Navy ships and two Coast Guard ships rushed to the scene, and the Defense Ministry later said 58 of the corvette’s crew had been rescued. Two had to be airlifted for urgent medical treatment.

North Korea recently warned it was strengthening its defenses in response to joint South Korean-US military exercises earlier this month. It had declared four naval firing zones near the sea border, deploying multiple rocket launchers. Two of the zones are in the Yellow Sea.

President Lee Myung Bak President Lee Myung Bak

Action: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, center, talks to officials today after the sinking of one of the country’s naval vessels

North Korea never recognized the maritime border unilaterally drawn by the US-led UN Command at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The Yellow Sea was the scene of naval battles in 1999 – when 17 North Korean sailors were killed – and 2002 when four South Korean sailors and at least 30 North Koreans were killed.

Last November, the two navies engaged in a brief exchange of fire that killed a North Korean sailor and wounded three others. A North Korean ship was on fire.

In January, North Korea fired artillery into the disputed zones amid mounting international pressure to resume talks over its nuclear ambitions. Some analysts say the firing zones – and the recent escalation of military activity – could be a way to strengthen her hand in any talks.

In 2002, then-US President George Bush called North Korea an “axis of evil” alongside Iraq and Iran. But the regime in Pyongyang was defiant and the following year claimed it had enough plutonium for nuclear bombs.

In 2006, North Korea fired a long-range missile and last year claimed it had conducted an underground nuclear test, prompting protests from the US, Russia and China.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visits the Daeheungsan Machinery Factory in North Korea yesterday


At the end of World War II, Korea was a united country under Japanese occupation.

But after Japan’s defeat, the island was effectively split with Soviet troops occupying the north and American troops in the south.

The stage was set for a long-running and bitter confrontation between the capitalist west and the communist forces of Russia.

In 1948, leaders in the north proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Soviets withdrew. Two years later, the South declared independence. North Korea invaded.

The ensuing war lasted three years, killed two million, and devastated the country’s economy and infrastructure.

Hostilities finally ceased when the two sides agreed to a three-mile buffer zone between the two states.

But despite the ceasefire, sporadic hostilities continued, with the two small countries fighting a bitter offshoot of the Cold War in a remote and neglected corner of the world.

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The South – propped up by the Americans – prospered. However, the north has had a much 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 ceasefire, his successor abdicated.

In 1996, against a background of devastating famine, Kim Jong-il announced that he would send troops to the Demilitarized Zone

In 2002, George W. Bush listed North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” alongside other “rogue states” such as Iraq and Iran.

But Kim Jong-il was not deterred. Instead, Pyongyang made regular announcements about its arsenal, claiming in July 2003 that it had enough plutonium to make nuclear bombs.

In 2006, North Korea fired a long-range missile. Relations with the West deteriorated again last year when neighboring countries accused the country of conducting another long-range missile test.

However, Pyongyang claimed that the missile under investigation carried a communications satellite.

Later last year, the country admitted it had conducted its second underground nuclear test, sparking protests from the US, China and Russia.

And as the nuclear conflict continued, there were regular spats with South Korea over border incursions and hostile intent.

The maritime border in particular has been a source of tension in recent months. South Korea claims the North has designated four areas as military firing ranges and deployed four rocket launchers close to the sea in response.

Although South Korea still recognizes the Northern Limit Line established in 1953, the North has never accepted the border.


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