The Cheonan - Another Gulf of To

The Cheonan - Another Gulf of Tonkin?

Cathy Fischer

May 30, 2010

The sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean ship which is supposed to have been sunk by a North Korean submarine, looks more and more like a ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident being used as an excuse to attack North Korea.

The Cheonan was part of a joint military exercise, Operation Foal Eagle, by South Korea and the United States, taking place off Baengnyeong Island and sank on March 26. Baengnyeong Island is only 20 kilometers from North Korea in an area that the North claims as its maritime territory. A committee appointed by the South Korean government immediately charged that the Cheonan had been sunk by a North Korean sub, and the mainstream media have pursued a policy of repeating the charge endlessly while ignoring the information that has come out refuting the charge.

Japanese journalist Tanaka Sakai writes in Asia-Pacific Journal:

"The Cheonan was a patrol boat whose mission was to survey with radar and sonar the enemy’s submarines, torpedoes and aircraft....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, U.S. 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 Seoul newspaper Hankyoreh agrees. "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 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." And Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation issued a statement that 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."

Stephen Gowans reports that Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence, told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April, less than two weeks after the South Korean warship sank, that there was no evidence linking North Korea to the sinking. South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo, while Lee-Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean Joint chiefs of staff agreed that "No North Korean warships have been the waters where the accident took place." Gowans adds: "Notice he said accident."

Soon after the sinking of the Cheonan, Defence Minister Kim Tae-young ruled out a North Korean torpedo attack, and Intelligence chief Won See-hoon, said there was no evidence linking North Korea to the sinking. When speculation persisted that the Cheonan had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo, the Defence minister called another press conference to reiterate "there was no unusual North Korean activities detected at the time of the disaster."

As Gowans points out, "The case gets weaker still." Back Seung-joo, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis said that "If a single torpedo or floating mine causes a naval patrol vessel to split in half and sink, we will have to rewrite our military doctrine."

Other evidence points to the Cheonan splitting in two and sinking because it ran aground upon a reef, a real possibility given the shallow waters in which the warship was operating. For example, the South Korean Coast Guard captain who rescued 56 of the stricken warship’s crew reported he had "received an order...that a naval patrol vessel had run aground in the waters 1.2 miles to the southwest of Baengnyeon Island, and that we were to move there quickly to rescue them."

"So how is it," Gowans asks, "that what looked like no North Korean involvement in the Cheonan’s sinking, according to the South Korean military in the days immediately following the incident, has now become, one and a half months later, an open and shut case of North Korean aggression...."

As Gowans points out, "It is worth mentioning that North Korea supports a policy of peace and co-operation. South Korea, under its hawkish president, does not." President Lee Myung-bak’s predecessors favoured a policy of peaceful coexistence and growing co-operation with their neighbour to the north. President Lee and his Grand National Party, prefer a confrontational stance toward North Korea; his foreign policy rests on the goal of forcing the collapse of North Korea. "Lurking in the wings," says Gowans, "are U.S. arms manufacturers who stand to profit if South Korean president Lee Myung-bak wins public backing for beefed up spending on sonar equipment and warships to deter a North Korean threat." The RAND Corporation, for instance has called for South Korea to buy sensors to detect North Korean submarines, and more warships to intercept North Korean naval vessels.

When Lee took office in February 2008, he set about reversing a 10-year-old policy of unconditional aid to the North,. He has also refused to move ahead on cross-border economic projects. Lee’s goal, as Selig Harrison, the U.S. establishment’s foremost liberal expert on Korea describes it, is to "once again seek the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South." Lee, who claimed that his intuition had told him North Korea was to blame, has used the Cheonan incident to cut off trade with the North; block the North’s use of the South’s shipping lanes; argue for stepped up international sanctions against Pyongyang; call for the beefing up of the South’s military; and issue a virtual declaration of war, branding North Korea the South’s principal foe and announcing that "It is now time for the North Korean regime to change."

Seoul already spends $20 billion per year on its armed forces, almost three times more than the $7 billion Pyongyang allocates to military spending. At the same time there are 30,000 U.S. troops stationed on the Korean peninsula and twice as many more in nearby Japan. As Gowans says, "By expanding the South’s military budget, and using the Cheonan affair to put the country on a virtual war footing, Lee forces the North to either divert even more of its limited resources to its military - a reaction which will ratchet up the misery factor inside the North as guns take even more of a precedence over butter – or leave itself inadequately equipped to defend itself."

Immediately after the sinking, an inquiry group was appointed by Lee, but even before the inquiry rendered its findings, Lee announced that a task force would be launched to overhaul the national security system and bulk up the military to prepare itself for threats from North Korea. He even prepared a package of sanctions against the North in the event the inquiry confirmed that his intuition had told him. The inquiry did find the North responsible, but its findings were denounced by civil society groups, and inconsistencies were questioned by the South Korean media. Fabricating a case against the North would serve Lee in the mayoral and gubernatorial elections coming up early in June, but opposition parties are accusing Lee of using "red scare" tactics to garner support. Leaders of South Korea’s four main opposition parties have issued a joint statement denouncing the government’s findings as untrustworthy.

Back in 1964, on August 2, the United States announced that three North Vietnamese torpedo boats had launched an unprovoked attack on the USS Maddox, a US Navy destroyer, in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident handed then U.S. president Lyndon Johnson the Congressional support he needed to step up military intervention in Vietnam. In 1971, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon papers, a secret Pentagon report, revealed that the incident had been faked to provide a pretext for escalated military intervention. There had been no attack.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has seized on the Cheonan incident to strengthen the U.S. claim that North Korea is a threat. For her it is a justification for the continued presence, 65 years after the end of World War Two of 60,000 U.S. troops on Japanese soil, as well as those in South Korea, and the current attempts to expand their military base in the region. She would do well to remember the outcome of ‘the Tonkin incident’ and the Vietnam war.