U.S. and Western officials say there are growing worries about a new conflict breaking out in Korea, based on evidence that a North Korean mini-submarine fired the torpedo that sank the South Korean coastal patrol ship Cheonan, killing 46 crew members.
South Korea’s government is under pressure to respond to the attack and is reviewing its options, including a possible military response to the March 26 sinking, Western sources said.
Seoul is expected in the next two weeks to reveal the results of an international probe that includes U.S. Navy investigators.
Preliminary intelligence assessments show that the planning for the operation to sink the Cheonan began late last year and included North Korean navy exercises with special operations forces that ultimately were used in the attack.
An intelligence source said the attack also appears linked to leadership succession in North Korea.
Additionally, senior North Korean military officials, including the chief of the general staff in Pyongyang, were involved. There is also indication of involvement by a three-star general, Kim Myong-guk, who had been demoted from four-star rank after a November 2009 North-South naval clash. The general recently appeared in a photograph in the North Korean state-run press as having regained his fourth star after the sinking.
The South Korean government recently lodged an official diplomatic protest to China over the visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, saying Beijing was ignoring South Korean concerns about North Korea’s involvement in the Cheonan sinking.
A State Department official said the United States is backing its key Asian ally and demanding a resolution of the incident before restarting the stalled six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. The official said the Obama administration joined Seoul in issuing its own protest to China over Mr. Kim’s visit to China.
U.S. officials are worried about a new missile proliferation threat: covert Russian missiles being marketed by Moscow that are deployed inside launchers disguised as shipping containers.
U.S. intelligence units in charge of monitoring arms proliferation were alerted by a marketing video produced by a Russian company that makes the missiles.
“Naturally, there are concerns about this kind of thing,” said a U.S. official. “But at this point, there don’t seem to be a hell of a lot of takers.”
The worry is that the missiles could be sold to Iran, which in the past has supplied its Chinese-made anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah.
The disguised missile is being offered by the Russian arms conglomerate Concern Morinformsystem-Agat, which states on its website that with its Club-K and Club-U missile systems “almost every type of ship can be turned into missile ship.”