Why Did North Korea Sink the South Korean Ship?

An international investigative team now has provided authorities in South Korea with an answer to who was responsible for the explosion that sunk one of their warships last March 26, killing 46 sailors. "The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that [a] torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation," said the inquiry team, which included experts from United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Sweden.

Left entirely unanswered by the inquiry panel's report, which was released by the South Korean president's office: why the volatile and antisocial regime of North Korea's ailing "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, would have wanted to fire a torpedo at one of its neighbor's ships—a highly provocative move, which by almost any definition, could be considered an act of war. U.S. national-security officials acknowledge that North Korea is one of the most opaque intelligence targets in the world and that very little indeed is known about the inner workings of its leadership, including the erratic thought processes of its seemingly weakened strongman. Two U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that American agencies have no real hard information on what might have prompted North Korean to launch the attack.

However, the officials indicated that one theory that is growing in popularity among U.S. experts is that the March torpedo attack, which North Korea has vehemently denied, might have been some kind of belated tit-for-tat response to an incident last November in which South Korea allegedly fired on—and damaged—a North Korean Navy vessel.

According to a BBC report, South Korea's ship fired on the North Korean ship after the Northern ship allegedly trespassed across a sea border that the two countries dispute. The North Korean ship returned fire, but not before it had been set ablaze after being hit by South Korean ordnance. North Korea maintained that its ship did not cross the border, and demanded that South Korea apologize, the BBC said. The New York Times reported that a North Korean naval officer had died and that three sailors were injured in the incident.

The U.S. officials say that U.S. agencies are nowhere near certain that the deadly March 26 naval clash was indeed a North Korean attempt to retaliate for the November incident. But they said that this is as plausible an explanation for the March incident as anything. Officials declined to speculate as to whether such a retaliatory act would have had to have been authorized at the highest level of the North Korean government—presumably by Kim Jong-il himself, assuming he is healthy enough to still be in charge—or whether it is conceivable that a military commander at a lower level could have taken it upon himself to pursue vengeance.

While the evidence that the South Korean ship was deliberately sunk by a North Korean torpedo might in some circumstances become an almost irrefutable casus belli, most parties to the Korean conflict, including the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and, most important, China, appear to be going out of their way to proceed cautiously and not allow the situation to escalate into a potentially catastrophic larger war. How to respond to the incident—and to future potential provocations by the North's mercurial leadership—is expected to be high on the agenda when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes a major visit to China over the next few days.