A Korean Drama—Who Sunk the Cheonan?


On 26 March 2010, a South Korean navy corvette named the ROKS Cheonan sank in the Yellow Sea after an explosion pierced its hull, killing 46 seamen.  The Cheonan was patrolling the southern side of the disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL) maritime boundary between North and South Korea near Baengnyeong Island.  Like any good crime drama, the Cheonan incident raises questions about potential suspects and motives for the act.


The South Korean Ministry of Defense subsequently commissioned the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG), comprised of experts from South Korea as well as the US, Australia, Great Britain and Sweden, to conduct an investigation into the sinking.  The JIG report found that the explosion was caused by a shockwave caused by the detonation of a torpedo and was unequivocal in its conclusion that the torpedo was fired from a North Korean mini-submarine.

The evidence presented in the JIG report was not as convincing as South Korean government rhetoric would suggest.  Remnants of a torpedo bearing the Hangul script “1번” (translated as “No. 1” in English) were dredged up from the seabed near the wreckage of the ship.  These markings were said to match those found on a known model of North Korean torpedo, suggesting that the recovered device was manufactured in North Korea.  Furthermore, it cited evidence that a small squad of North Korean mini-submarines left a North Korean naval base, accompanied by a mother ship, approximately 2-3 days before the Cheonan attack and returned to the base 2-3 days after the incident.  Furthermore, there were said to be no other submarines from neighbouring countries in the vicinity at the time of the attack.  A lot of circumstantial evidence, but no smoking gun linking the attack to North Korea.

But if not North Korea, then who?  One alternative theory for the sinking suggests that the Cheonan simply ran aground.  The event was instead exaggerated to enhance the position of South Korea’s ruling party in local elections.  A variant of this thesis claims that the torpedo remnant may have been dug out of a South Korean military warehouse of old ordinance, given the unusually extensive amount of corrosion covering the remnant for something that lay underwater for only 50 days.  They also point out the lack publicly available evidence of the ships communications or testimony from Cheonan survivors.

But would the Lee Myung-bak government in Seoul turn a simple ship grounding into a potential act of war so his party-mates could win some local elections?  This seems highly unlikely.  A provocation of this magnitude is a clear violation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement and is tantamount to an act of war.

The fact is, war is the last thing Seoul wants.  The South Korean government’s weak response is emblematic of a country unwilling to risk its economic miracle on another fratricidal war and reflects its compromised position as a hostage to a North Korean artillery and rocket assault (the South Korean capital would have only three minutes warning of a North Korean artillery assault, given that it lies only 40 km from the north-south border).

A particularly wild conspiracy theory purports that the Japanese government was responsible, to create a public panic within Japan that would create the political space for Tokyo to renew US military base leasing rights in Okinawa.  Again, this theory is a stretch.

What’s the motive?

Why would a North Korean submarine attack the Cheonan?  One hypothesis suggests the torpedo attack could have been a reprisal for an incident in November 2009 in which two North Korean naval seamen were killed.  A North Korean naval patrol boat crossed the NLL, prompting warning fire from a South Korean vessel.  The North Korean patrol returned fire and was met with a crippling volley from the South Korean vessel, which disabled the North Korean boat.

A second possibility posits that the Cheonan attack could be a sign of instability within the regime leadership, where an external crisis has been engineered to bolster the domestic credentials of Kim Jong-il and his succession plan.  Kim Jong-il may deem such bold provocations necessary to secure institutional support for his son and anointed successor, Kim Jong-un, in the absence of a long grooming period in which Kim Jong-un could build his support within the military and the Party.

The Cheonan incident preceded Kim Jong-il’s visit to China in early May, reportedly accompanied by his son.  Kim Jong-un’s inclusion in official state delegations and insertion into important institutional posts may be part of an accelerated grooming program, given urgency by Kim Jong-il’s questionable health.  Recent reports suggest Kim Jong-un himself may have ordered the attack to prove his mettle as a figure worthy of the top echelons of power and eventually the leadership.

A third theory suggests the attack was motivated by a possible restart of nonproliferation negotiations in the Six Party Talks, a forum including the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, along with North Korea.  During the opening months of 2010, it appeared that North Korea might be willing to return to the Six Party Talks.  According to official North Korean mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang’s participation would be conditional on the lifting of economic sanctions, along with negotiations for an official peace treaty to replace the 1953 Korean War armistice agreement.

With a resumption of negotiations pending, the North may have resorted to old form.  At various times over the past two decades, North Korea has shown a willingness to participate in negotiations while simultaneously engaging in calculated military provocations to increase its bargaining advantage.  The Cheonan attack may have been designed to engineer a coercive bargaining dynamic, giving Pyongyang an opportunity to extort aid and inputs for its economy as the price for de-escalation.  If accurate, this scenario would be entirely consistent with past North Korean negotiating behaviour.

What does it all mean?

If the Cheonan incident is indeed an engineered crisis, it represents a dangerous new phase of the coercive bargaining game in which Pyongyang has decided to engage in more extreme provocations to extract aid from the international community, confident that its nuclear weapons capability will deter military retaliation from South Korea and the United States.  In spite of some muscular rhetoric, the muted practical response of Seoul and Washington may have done little to dissuade Pyongyang from this view.

Further Reading:

CHA, Victor. 2010. The Sinking of the Cheonan . Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies. http://csis.org/publication/sinking-cheonan

DEMICK, Barbara & GLIONNA, John. 2010. Doubts surface on North Korea’s role in ship sinking. Los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jul/23/world/la-fg-korea-torpedo-20100724/3

ROK Ministry of Unification. 2010. Announcement of Measures against North Korea. http://www.nautilus.org/fora/security/2010MOU.pdf

SIGAL, Leon. 2010. To Calm Korean Waters . Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development. http://www.nautilus.org/fora/security/10031Sigal.html

Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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