Analysts inside the Obama Administration believe North Korean sank a South Korean naval warship in March as a payback for losing a maritime fire fight to the South last year.
The analysts think Kim Jong Il, the North’s Stalinist leader, plotted a time to strike back and found it when the South Korean warship Cheonan came within range of a mini-sub, which then launched the deadly torpedo.
In November 2009, both countries’ ships exchanged fire after a North Korean patrol boat crossed what is called the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, on the peninsula’s Western side. The North does not recognize the United Nation-imposed border imposed in 1953 after the Korean War.
In the November incident, the South fired five warning shots. The patrol boat fired back, igniting a further exchange that left the North’s vessel in smoke and retreating. Pyongyang labeled the incident a "grave armed provocation" and demanded an apology. None was offered.
Asian analysts at the time predicted Kim would retaliate at some point, as the North did in 1999 and 2002 after similar sea skirmishes.
A senior U. S. official told HUMAN EVENTS this week, “It’s always hard to read the mind of a regime that isn’t exactly known for its rational thinking, but it’s entirely possible that the fact that a North Korean vessel lost out in a firefight with the South Koreans late last year wasn’t sitting well in Pyongyang.”
An international investigative team—made up of South Korea, the United States, Britain, Australia and Sweden—concluded May 20 that a North Korean torpedo sank the South’s warship, killing 50 sailors. The ship, the Cheonan, was sailing south of the Northern Limit Line when attacked.
The probe’s key piece of evidence was torpedo fragments found by South Korean fishing boats that matched exactly the torpedoes North Korea offers for sale on the international market. What’s more, intelligence reports show small submarines left a North naval base a few days before the sinking and returned afterwards.
U.S. officials say the prevailing assessment is that Kim, who has direct control over his military’s special operations ground and sea forces, ordered the attack as retaliation.
Larry Wortzel, a retired Army officer who served as a military attache in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, told HUMAN EVENTS there are other plausible motivations. One is the fact that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has taken a harder line than his predecessor on North-South relations.
And Kim, as well as his late father Kim Il Sung, has displayed a penchant for provocative acts, such as detonating a nuclear device, as a way of getting diplomatic attention from the South, Japan, China and the U.S. when he feels ignored.
Kim is believe in ill heath, perhaps a stroke victim, and may be in the process of turning over more power to his sons.
"They certainly will commit acts like this when they reach a point of desperation in thinking they’ve lost the attention of the South and the West," Wortzel said.
"I don’t know how they can go to a much darker side," he said. "I think they really don’t want to go to war. Nine times out of ten, when they do these desperate things, within a reasonable period of time, it has worked out better for them. They get more attention from the Japanese and they get more attention out of the South."
The Chinese foreign minister is due in Seoul for talks this week, but does not seem ready to back a strong condemnation from the United Nations Security Council, as Lee has demanded, or economic sanctions.
The Pentagon, which has 28,000 troops in the South, has moved some away from the border in recent years to reduce tensions
But the guilty verdict against the North in the ship sinking has spurred the Pentagon to announce new measures to improve Southern defenses. Among them is a planned joint anti-submarine exercise in the Yellow Sea.
To date, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, have tried to tap down tensions by saying the South, not the U.S., is taking the lead.
"We are all focused on that region, the stability in that region—that needs to be sustained—and at the same time very focused on supporting our strong ally in the Republic of Korea," Mullen said.
Gates is rebutting assertions that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will make the U.S. unable to respond to an invasion from the North.
"The truth of the matter is we’ve said for a long time that, if there were a problem in Korea, our main arms would be the Navy and the Air Force," Gates said.
At 655,000, the South has one of the world’s largest armed forces. Its combat readiness has improved significantly the past 20 years.