Tensions in Korea over claims warship sunk by torpedo

Tensions in Korea over claims warship sunk by torpedo

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

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

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

Torpedo attack: A South Korean naval coastal defense ship patrols the country’s north coast (file photo)

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

Relations between the two have also come under strain of late over disputes over cross-border tourism and a joint economic zone.

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

While ships and helicopters searched for survivors at the sinking site last night, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened 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 vessel, the 1,200-ton corvette Cheonan, was on a routine patrol when it was hit by an explosion near 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 was able to fire its warning shots at a distant flock of birds that produced an image on its radar.

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

Six naval vessels and two coast guard vessels arrived on the scene and the Defense Ministry later said 58 of the corvette’s crew had been rescued. Two had to be airlifted for emergency medical care.

North Korea recently warned it was stepping up 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 and deployed multiple rocket launchers. Two of the zones are in the Yellow Sea.

President Lee Myung-bak

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

North Korea has never recognized the maritime border that was unilaterally drawn by the US-led United Nations Command at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

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 engaged in a brief firefight that killed a North Korean sailor and injured three others. A North Korean ship has gone up in flames.

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

In 2002, then-US President George Bush named North Korea in an “axis of evil” alongside Iraq and Iran. But the Pyongyang regime rebelled, claiming to have enough plutonium for nuclear bombs the following year.

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

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

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 split with Soviet troops occupying the north and American troops in the south.

The stage was set for a protracted 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 has been invaded.

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

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

But despite the ceasefire, sporadic hostilities continued, the two small countries fighting a bitter Cold War offshoot 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 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 returned.

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” 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 neighbors 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 to conducting its second underground nuclear test, sparking protests from the US, China and Russia.

And as the nuclear brinkmanship continued, there were frequent fights with South Korea over border raids and hostile intent.

The sea border in particular has caused great tensions in recent months. South Korea claims that the North has designated four areas as military firing ranges and has deployed four rocket launchers close to the sea in response.

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

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