A South Korean naval vessel sank with more than 100 aboard “and Seoul was looking into whether it was due to a torpedo attack by the North, South Korea’s YTN TV network reported.” Seoul later backpedaled on speculation saying a flock of birds may have been responsible for radar returns which prompted South Korean return fire. They also said the ship may have run around or been the victim of an internal explosion.
The vessel in question was ROKS Cheonan, a 1,200 ton corvette armed with Harpoon antiship missiles, 76 mm cannon and torpedoes. It sank in the vicinity of Baengnyeong Island, the site of several clashes between North and South Korea.
It is a wild and isolated spot. Wikipedia says “the Chinese egret, which is considered to be one of the fifty rarest birds in the world, can be found here. Taiwanese President “Ma Ying-jeou activated the country’s national security mechanism on Friday after a South Korean naval ship sank in the Yellow Sea, the island’s Central News Agency reported.”
Last week the US wrapped up its annual exercises with South Korea. Exercise Key Resolve was aimed at preparing for transitioning the wartime command of Korean forces to Seoul.
“We are standing up the organizations already to be able to make sure that the organizational structures … are completely up and operational,” Sharp said. Both U.S. Forces Korea, which will become U.S. Korea Command when operational control transfers, and the South Korean military headquarters and components are preparing for the transition.
In the meantime the US continues to exercise formal influence on affairs. The Guardian says that North Korea may be testing the waters. But it is not sure whether South Korea can be completely restrained. Some form of retaliation is possible.
If the sinking of Cheonan was intentional, it creates a serious crisis for the Koreas’ neighbours and for the United States. None of the US, Japan, or China desire the threat of major military action on the Korean Peninsula. The US, still embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn’t want another military confrontation on its plate. At the same time, it will be difficult for the US to restrain South Korea from some form of retaliation. Japan’s patience with North Korea has similarly run thin, and it is unlikely that Tokyo could be relied on too heavily as a voice of caution. Beijing has only limited affection for its North Korean client, but certainly does not want war, or even the threat of war. North Korea’s intentions remain mysterious; if it intended to signal its toughness and resolve to South Korea, it may have bitten off more than it can chew.
Until a definitive conclusion is reached one can only review the types of naval threats that have been revealed in recent years. During the 2006 Lebanon war the Sa’ar 5 class Israeli corvette Hanit was hit by a C-802 antiship missile. Four crewmen were killed and the warship had to be towed back to base. The North Koreans are reported to possess Silkworms, whose prowess is shown in the video below.
The other threat mentioned is the naval torpedo. Small torpedo boats can be armed with something like the TP613 torpedo whose effects are shown in the 2nd of 3 videos below. The gold standard for destructiveness is the US Mk 48 heavyweight torpedo, which as can be seen in the last of the three videos, is capable of snapping an older target destroyer like a twig.