Are we heading for a second Korean War?

South Korea accuses North Korea of sinking a battleship, and Pyongyang is threatening "all-out war." Are we on the brink of a major blowup?

Suth Korean Navy admiral Park Jung-Soo speaks in front of the wreckage of the Cheonan.
(Image credit: Getty)

South Korea says North Korea torpedoed one of its naval ships, the Cheonan, killing 46 soldiers, and that it "will make North Korea pay." Though the accusation is supported by an international investigative team which presented its evidence this week, North Korea calls it a "fabrication," and says any retaliation will "promptly" result in "all-out war." The last time the north and south fought, it ended in the formal 1953 separation into two Koreas. Are we about to see a rematch of the Korean War? (Watch an AP report about the latest Korean conflict)

What happened?

The 300-foot South Korean warship Cheonan, carrying a crew of 104, sank in the Yellow Sea near North Korea on March 26 after an explosion ripped a hole in its hull. A team of more than 25 experts from South Korea, the U.S., Australia, Sweden, and Britain was dispatched to find out why and says the evidence points "overwhelmingly to the conclusion that [a] torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

What's their evidence?

The key discovery was a torpedo propeller that perfectly matches a model made in North Korea. The investigators also reported that a small group of submarines left a North Korean naval base a few days before the attack and returned a few days after.

Why would North Korea do this?

One theory is that the alleged attack was retaliation for a naval scuffle between the two countries that left a North Korean ship in flames last November. There's also "the small chance that Kim Jong-il has descended into total madness," says The Guardian's Julian Borger. But the scenario "that should worry us the most is the possibility that it was not Kim Jong Il who gave the orders," says North Korea expert Ruediger Frank, since that would indicate destabilizing unrest brewing inside the Kim's government.

What happens next?

South Korea in unlikely to respond militarily. Though "[North Korea] is very unlikely to court its own destruction by launching a nuclear attack," says Borger, "no responsible government in Seoul can bet on that." Instead, South Korea will almost certainly ask for tougher punitive sanctions from the United Nations Security Council. The wild card is Security Council member China, North Korea's "patron." The investigators "need to deliver their report very formally to China," says Kongdan Oh in The Atlantic, "and say look, if you want to be a great power in the 21st century, you are dealing with a gangster, and you should stop helping them. That is another form of sanction."

Sources: BBC News, CNN, Newsweek, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Reuters, The Atlantic

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.