Analysts question Korea torpedo incident
By Jeff Stein | May 27, 2010; 4:19 PM ET
How is it that a submarine of a fifth-rate power was able to penetrate a U.S.-South Korean naval exercise and sink a ship that was designed for anti-submarine warfare?
Such questions are being fueled by suggestions in the South Korean and Japanese media that the naval exercise was intended to provoke the North to attack. The resulting public outcry in the South, according to this analysis, would bolster support for a conservative government in Seoul that is opposed to reconciliation efforts.
As fanciful as it may sound to Western ears, the case that Operation Foal Eagle was designed to provoke the North has been underscored by constant references in regional media to charts showing the location where the ship was sunk -- in waters close to, and claimed by, North Korea.
"Baengnyeong Island is only 20 kilometers from North Korea in an area that the North claims as its maritime territory, except for the South Korean territorial sea around the island,” Japanese journalist Tanaka Sakai wrote in the left-leaning Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
He called the sinking of the ship “an enigma.”
"The Cheonan was a patrol boat whose mission was to survey with radar and sonar the enemy’s submarines, torpedoes, and aircraft ... " Sakai wrote.
"If North Korean submarines and torpedoes were approaching, the Cheonan should have been able to sense it quickly and take measures to counterattack or evade. Moreover, on the day the Cheonan sank, US and ROK military exercises were under way, so it could be anticipated that North Korean submarines would move south to conduct surveillance. It is hard to imagine that the Cheonan sonar forces were not on alert."
The liberal Hankyoreh newspaper in Seoul echoed a similar theme.
“A joint South Korean-U.S. naval exercise involving several Aegis warships was underway at the time, and the Cheonan was a patrol combat corvette (PCC) that specialized in anti-submarine warfare. The question remains whether it would be possible for a North Korean submarine to infiltrate the maritime cordon at a time when security reached its tightest level and without detection by the Cheonan,” it reported.
American spy satellites were also monitoring the exercise, “so the U.S. would have known that North Korean submarines had left their ports on a mission,” adds Scott Snyder, director of Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation.
“The route the North Korean submarines apparently took was from the East Sea, not directly from the North across the NLL,” or Northern Limit Line, the sea boundary unilaterally imposed by Seoul. “Essentially, they went the roundabout way and came at the ROK vessel from behind,” he said.
But Bruce Klingner, chief of the CIA’s Korea Branch in the 1990s, said “anti-submarine operations are far more difficult than is often realized.
“Beyond the obvious difficulty in tracking something that is designed to operate quietly, navies are confronted with natural acoustical phenomena as shallow, noisy littoral waters and layers of water salinity which can provide cover for submarines.”
Moreover, says Terence Roehrig, a professor at the Naval War College, “the Cheonan was an older Pohang-class corvette and not one of these [newer] ships.”
“Satellite and communications coverage of sub bases can tell when subs have left base…” adds Bruce Bechtol, Jr., professor of international relations at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. “It cannot tell locations of submarines once they are at sea -- unless they surface or communicate.”
“A mini-submarine like the type that is assessed to have penetrated the NLL is designed specifically for covert maneuvering in shallow waters like those that exist off of the west coast of the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
“It appears from the reports that [the South Korean Ministry of Defense] has released that a submarine departed port off the west coast of North Korea, accompanied by a support vessel. The submarine perhaps could have come fairly close to the NLL using diesel power, then switched to battery power, which is much quieter,” Bechtol added. “The submarine could have then slipped past the NLL at an appropriate time and waited for a ROK ship to approach.”
Suspicions about what happened, Bechtol said, are unwarranted.
“The fact of the matter is, a submarine did infiltrate into South Korean waters -- and they have done so in the past fairly frequently," he said.
"It is their mission.”