Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Cheonan sinking: insanity or accident?

When Sarah Palin bloviates, the media goes mad. When a South Korean military vessel blows up, perhaps from a North Korean missile, things get very quiet.

This is a good thing. Evidently the prospect of WW III does concentrate minds. It’s a sign that our legislators aren’t as stupid as they look.

A recent BBC summary outlines the current public analysis…

BBC News - Seoul's dilemma over sunken warship

The 26 March sinking of the Cheonan, with 40 lives lost and six men still missing, is certainly a South Korean military disaster…

… The shattered wreck of the 1,200-tonne gunboat has now been winched to the surface, in two pieces, and is being examined at a naval dockyard.

The investigation team includes American, Australian, Swedish and British experts, in part, to ensure that its conclusions are seen as free from South Korean political influence.

… suspicion is mounting, with South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-young concluding that a torpedo attack is among the "most likely" causes.

… "If it's a torpedo firing then that's about as big a thing as you can do short of rolling across the border," he told me. "Unless you have a desire to start World War III then you don't do it…

… If it is shown to be a torpedo that hit the Cheonan, then perhaps it can be seen as retaliation for the fact that North Korea is reported to have come off worse in the most recent naval skirmish.

Or maybe it was an attempt to rally the military around the leadership of the ailing Kim Jong-il, reportedly trying to manage a difficult transition of power to his youngest son.

But others have suggested that it might be the military acting alone, a sign of a dangerous shift in the balance of power inside North Korea, and a far more worrying prospect.

So the options are …

  • North Korea’s leadership is insane
  • North Korea’s military is insane
  • It’s a freak accident with an impossibly ancient mine

The last is unlikely, the first two are discouraging. I wonder, just based on watching humans for a while, if there isn’t a fourth explanation.

An accident. A blunder. A screw-up.

Remember when the US shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988, killing 290 civilians? No, that wasn’t US military policy. It was a screw-up.

We now know how crummy the Soviet military infrastructure was before the collapse of the USSR. It’s likely that North Korea’s is in much worse shape. It’s likely their submariners are desperate and ill-trained. it’s a setup for an accident, or for a crazed officer to do something very stupid.

Would the submarine officers confess to having screwed up? In North Korea that would probably be a death sentence – or worse.

My money is on blunder.

Now it’s all about China, which has huge investments in North Korea. It’s all about whether China will decide that North Korea has to end, and, if so, on what terms and timeline.

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