Yesterday, I sounded a skeptical note over reports from North Korea that Kim Jong-il’s grip on power may be weakening.  If true, I said that Kim would attempt to trigger an international crisis in order to distract internal dissent from taking root.  Maybe that turned out to be prescient:

South Korea’s military scrambled naval vessels to the western waters near the disputed maritime border with North Korea late Friday after an explosion ripped a hole in the bottom of a military ship, officials and news reports said.

South Korea’s YTN TV network said the government, which met in emergency session in an underground bunker after the incident, was investigating whether the sinking was due to a torpedo attack by the North.

The 1,200-ton ship — reported to have 104 crew on board — began sinking off the coast of South Korean-controlled Baengnyeong Island close to North Korea around 10:45 p.m. (1345 GMT, 9:45 a.m. EDT), an official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department policy. There were unconfirmed reports it had already sunk.

No one has yet confirmed that the DPRK fired on the ship.  The explosion could have been caused by an accident on board, which does happen on occasion.  At least thus far, Seoul has been careful not to point a finger at Pyongyang until it gets more information on the explosion.  Their first priority will be to rescue the sailors from the sinking ship and to secure as much of its classified technology as possible.

If this does turn out to be an attack from North Korea, however, it will once again put Kim in the international spotlight — and give his security forces a reason to stand behind him against any rising dissent.

Update: CNN reports that the South Korean navy had engaged with an unidentified ship, firing towards the north:

The South Korean government issued a statement saying the reason for the incident remains unclear, but it wasn’t ruling out some sort of military engagement.

Yonhap quoted naval officials as saying a South Korean vessel fired at a ship toward the north later.

However, South Korean government officials said it isn’t certain whether North Korea was involved in the incident. Yonhap said local residents reported hearing gunfire for about 10 minutes.

The ship has sunk, according to the US.

Update II: Reuters has an odd take on the conflict, if it is that.  They’re blaming the South’s refusal to participate in a tourist resort:

The sinking comes as the impoverished North has become increasingly frustrated by its wealthy neighbor, which has given the cold-shoulder to recent attempts to reopen a lucrative tourist business on the northern side of the Cold War’s last frontier.

It also coincides with mounting pressure on Pyongyang to call off a more than one-year boycott of international talks to end its efforts to build a nuclear arsenal.

So it’s a wealth-redistribution problem on the part of Seoul instead of the nuclearization by Pyongyang?  Er … okay.

Update III: The AP says that 58 of the 104 sailors have been rescued so far.  Keep praying for the rest.

Update IV: AFP reports that the “ship” that South Korea attacked turned out to be a flock of seagulls.  I always hated that band, too.