The questions that have surrounded the sinking of the South Korean corvette Chon An are now focused on the why, not the how. South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-young told the National Assembly on 2 April that of the two possible causes, torpedoes or mines, that a torpedo was the likely device.
All the indications, from the massive inward damage and the fact that she fired her guns north before sinking, to the order for her sister corvette to open fire at an object travelling north (the NoRK have semi-submersibles which carry 2 torpedoes and travel at 30 knots) then there is only one actor who can be identified - North Korea.
The issue is no longer what happened but why North Korea would seek to escalate tensions by taking a provocative action that is of a far higher order than previous incidents of patrol boats exchanging gunfire in disputed waters? Earlier running engagements were the result of patrol in disputed areas and rarely occur. They were not pre-meditated attempts to engage and destroy, by either side.
However, torpedo attacks are not the result of random patrols running into each other. A torpedo attack involves precise tactics that include intelligence reports, tracking, targeting and firing the weapon with the intention to sink the target and likely resulting in the death of the crew. The captain knows this and it is highly unlikely that he acted without orders.
So, what was the intention? This is not simply a factor of a demand for attention – the usual reason even if it involves testing a nuclear device or arresting journalists. The South Koreans are acting very judiciously by not instantly accusing North Korea and may simply be waiting for the atmosphere to cool off. They will need to say something sooner or later. Then the question is one of response.
The entire incident, its purpose and what the South Korean government knows or chooses not to reveal, is very strange. I suspect that the incident will not result in any formal action against North Korea but the one player that such an overt act of aggression would irritate is China. This is not something they need with relations with the US beginning to thaw.
Stay tuned for the ‘butterfly effect’.