A South Korean navy ship was sunk yesterday in what was feared to have been a torpedo attack by a North Korean submarine.
Several of the 104 crew died and others disappeared last night.
The drama, which occurred near the disputed maritime border between the two Koreas, raised concerns that rising tensions between them could escalate into conflict.
Torpedo attack: A South Korean Navy coastal defense ship patrols the country’s northern coast (file image)
North Korea had previously threatened “unprecedented attacks,” including nuclear strikes, against its neighbor and the United States, claiming they were planning to topple Kim Jong-il’s regime.
Relations between the two have also been strained recently with disputes over cross-border tourism and a joint economic zone.
In the South there are fears that the North is becoming increasingly erratic and dangerous.
As boats and helicopters searched for survivors at the site of the sinking last night, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency meeting of security ministers in Seoul.
The incident occurred in the Yellow Sea near Baeknyeong Island, South Korea’s westernmost point and a key military outpost.
The South Korean ship, the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan, was on a routine patrol when it was hit by an explosion near its stern.
There were reports that he 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 that North Korean forces were in the area.
They said the Cheonan could have fired its warning shots at a distant flock of birds that had produced an image on its radar.
Senior government officials later told South Korean media that the ship may have hit a rock or been hit by an explosion on board.
Six warships and two coast guard vessels responded to the scene and the Ministry of Defense later said that 58 members of the corvette’s crew had been rescued. Two of them had to be airlifted for emergency medical treatment.
North Korea recently warned that it was boosting its defenses in response to joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises earlier this month. It had declared four naval firing zones near the maritime border, deploying multiple rocket launchers. Two of the areas are in the Yellow Sea.
Action: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (center) talks with officials today following the sinking of one of the country’s warships.
North Korea has never recognized the maritime border drawn unilaterally by the US-led United Nations Command at the end of the Korean War (1950-53).
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 Koreans died.
Last November, the two navies fought a brief firefight that left one North Korean sailor dead and three others wounded. A North Korean ship caught fire.
In January, North Korea fired artillery into disputed areas at a time of growing international pressure to restart talks on its nuclear ambitions. Some analysts say the firing zones – and the recent escalation of military activity – may be a way to strengthen your position in any talks.
In 2002, then-US President George Bush named North Korea in an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran. But the Pyongyang regime was defiant and the following year claimed it had enough plutonium to make nuclear bombs.
In 2006, North Korea tested a long-range missile and last year claimed it had carried out an underground nuclear test, sparking protests from the United States, Russia and China.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visits the Daeheungsan machinery factory in North Korea yesterday
KOREA, HALF A CENTURY OF CONFLICT
At the end of World War II, Korea was a united country under Japanese occupation.
But after Japan’s defeat, the island was effectively divided, with Soviet troops occupying the north and American forces in 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 invaded.
The war that followed lasted three years, left two million dead, 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, and the two small countries fought a bitter branch of the Cold War in a remote and abandoned corner of the world.
The South, supported by the Americans, prospered. However, the north has had a much more difficult history.
Originally ruled by Kim Il-song, the country’s supreme leader is now his son Kim Jong-il.
While his father had respected the terms of the 1953 ceasefire, his successor failed to comply.
In 1996, against a backdrop of 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” along with other “rogue” states such as Iraq and Iran.
But Kim Jong-il was not deterred. Instead, Pyongyang made regular announcements about its arsenal and in July 2003 claimed it had enough plutonium to begin making nuclear bombs.
In 2006, North Korea tested a long-range missile. Relations with the West deteriorated again last year when neighbors accused the country of carrying out another long-range missile test.
Pyongyang, however, claimed that the rocket under scrutiny carried a communications satellite.
Late last year, the country admitted it had carried out its second underground nuclear test, sparking protests from the United States, China and Russia.
And while the nuclear brinkmanship continued, there were regular disputes with South Korea over border incursions and hostile intentions.
The maritime border has been a source of special tension in recent months. South Korea says the North has designated four areas as a military firing zone and has deployed four rocket launchers near the sea in response.
Although South Korea still recognizes the Northern Boundary Line, which was drawn in 1953, the North has never accepted the border.