Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > Cheonan Sinking: Implications for Peace in Northeast Asia

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 23, May 29, 2010

Cheonan Sinking: Implications for Peace in Northeast Asia

Tuesday 1 June 2010, by Rajaram Panda


On March 26, 2010, the Republic of Korea’s Navy corvette—1200-tonne Cheonan—sank in the Yellow Sea south of the disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL) near Baengnyeong Island. An explosion in the ship’s stern broke it into two parts.1 There were 104 sailors on board, of which 46 were killed and the rest 58 were rescued. Initially, South Korea suspected the North Korean hand in the mishap but without convincing proof, it did not charge North Korea of this act. In order to establish conclusive evidence, it set up an international investigation team to find out the cause of the mishap. The Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIP) conducted its investigation with 25 experts from 10 top Korean expert agencies, 22 military experts, three experts recommended by the National Assembly, and 24 foreign experts from four countries—the US, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Sweden. The composition of the JIP was such that it had to investigate and examine data from four different angles: Scientific Investigation, Explosive Analysis, Ship Structure Management and Intelligence Analysis. The JIP submitted its investigation report undertaken with a scientific and objective approach on May 20, 2010. The results of the report were “obtained through an investigation and analysis of the deformation of the hull recovered from the seabed and evidence collected from the site of the incident”. The JIP assessed that “a strong underwater explosion generated by the detonation of a homing torpedo below and to the left of the gas turbine room caused the Republic of Korea Ship (ROKS) ‘Cheonan’ to split apart and sink”.

The preliminary investigations had established the fact that the cause of the explosion was external. This led the JIP team to speculate that the Cheonan was hit by a torpedo or a floating mine and that the blast impact originated from outside the vessel. Any explosion due to some catastrophic internal malfunction of the ship was therefore ruled out. Subsequently, it transpired that the impact was not because of an errant floating mine left over from the Korean War. Even before the JIP report was submitted, as much as 80 per cent of the Korean public was convinced that a North Korean torpedo sunk the ship.

The basis of the JIP’s assessment that the sinking was caused by a torpedo attack was as follows:

Precise measurement and analysis of the damaged part of the hull indicate that

• a shockwave and bubble effect caused significant upward bending of the CVK (Centre Vertical Keel), compared to its original state, and the shell plate was steeply bent, with some parts of the ship fragmented.

• On the main deck, fracture occurred around the large openings used for maintenance of equipment in the gas turbine room and significant upward deformation was present on the port side. Also, the bulkhead of the gas turbine room was significantly damaged and deformed.

• The bottoms of the stern and bow sections at the failure point were bent upward. This also proves that an underwater explosion took place.2

It further said:

Through a thorough investigation of the inside and outside of the ship, we have found evidence of extreme pressure on the fin stabiliser, a mechanism to reduce significant rolling of the ship; water pressure and bubble effects on the bottom of the hull; and wires cut with no traces of heat. All these point to a strong shockwave and bubble effect causing the splitting and sinking of the ship.3

The statement collected from the survivors corroborated with the findings that a near-simultaneous explosion once or twice was heard, water splashed on the face of a port-side lookout, which fell from the impact. According to the sentry on the shore of Baekryong-do, he witnessed an approximately 100-metre-high “pillar of white flash” for two-to-three seconds, which can only be caused from a shockwave and bubble effect. The seismic and infrasound wave analysis result conducted by the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM) showed that (a) seismic wave intensity of 1.5 degree was detected by four stations; (b) two infrasound waves with a 1.1-second interval were detected by 11 stations; (c) the seismic and infrasound waves originated from an identical site of explosion; and (d) this phenomenon corresponded to a shock wave and bubble effect generated by an underwater explosion.4

The JIP made numerous simulations of an underwater explosion and determined that a detonation with a net explosive weight of 200-300 kg occurred at a depth of about six-to-nine metres, approximately left of the centre of the gas turbine. Based on the analysis of tidal currents off Baekryong-do, the JIP determined that the currents could not have prevented a successful torpedo attack. The JIP team collected propulsion parts, including propulsion motor with propellers and a steering section from the site of the sinking to corroborate with the fact that it was a torpedo attack. The report noted: “The evidence matched in size and shape with the specifications on the drawing presented in introductory materials provided to foreign countries by North Korea for export purposes.” Indeed, the marking in Hangul found inside the end of the propulsion section was consistent with the marking of a previously obtained North Korean torpedo. This convinced the JIP that the recovered parts were made in North Korea and therefore established Pyongyang’s complicity. The JIP, therefore, eliminated other plausible factors such as grounding, fatigue failure, mines, collision and internal explosion.

Besides the JIP report, the Multinational Combined Intelligence Task Force (MCITF), comprising five states, including the US, Australia, Canada and the UK which operated since May 4, submitted its findings, and these too pointed fingers at North Korea. It observed that the North Korean military possess a fleet of about 70 submarines, comprising approximately 20 Romeo class submarines (1800 tonnes), 40 Sango class submarines (300 tones) and 10 midget submarines including the Yeono class (130 tonnes). The MCITF also noted that North Korea possesses torpedoes of various capabilities including straight running, acoustic and wake homing torpedoes with a net explosive weight of about 200 to 300 kg, which can deliver the same level of damage that was delivered to Cheonan. Therefore, the MCITF assessed and then confirmed that a few small submarines and a mother ship supporting them left a North Korean naval base in the West Sea two-to-three days prior to the attack and returned to port two-to-three days after the attack. The MCITF also confirmed that all submarines from neighbouring countries were either in or near their bases at the time of the incident.

The following observations of the JIP are interesting: To quote:

The torpedo parts recovered at the site of the explosion by a dredging ship on May 15th, which include the 5x5 bladed contra-rotating propellers, propulsion motor and a steering section, perfectly match the schematics of the CHT-02D torpedo included in introductory brochures provided to foreign countries by North Korea for export purposes. The markings in Hangul No. 1 found inside the end of the propulsion section, is consistent with the marking of a previously obtained North Korean torpedo. Russian and Chinese torpedoes are marked in their respective languages. The CHT-02D torpedo manufactured by North Korea utilises acoustic/wake homing and passive acoustic tracking methods. It is a heavyweight torpedo with a diameter of 21 inches, a weight of 1.7 tonnes and a net explosive weight of up to 250 kg.5

The JIP, therefore, concluded that Cheonan “was sunk as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea fired by a small North Korean submarine”.6


Following the findings of the multinational probe which established that the communist regime was behind the sinking of the warship Cheonan, South Korea promised to sternly punish North Korea. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak told Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over phone that his country would take “resolute countermeasures against North Korea and make it admit its wrongdoings through strong international cooperation and return to the international community as a responsible member”. Though Lee did not elaborate what those countermeasures would be, Pyongyang’s National Defence Commission, headed by Kim Jong-Il, immediately issued a statement accusing South Korea of “pointing a dirty accusing finger at us like a thief” and claimed the investigation as “sheer fabrication”. Pyongyang’s highest office immediately responded denying any involvement and warned of an “all-out war”.7 Normally, North Korea does not react to any such external developments so quickly. Amidst the war of words, Park Jung-I, a co-director of the South Korean investigation team, said that since both sides are technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War, the UN Military Armistice Commission should handle the North Korean offer to send a team of inspectors to verify the findings of the South Korean-led five-nation investigation report.

In South Korea, the reaction was one of dismay and shock. While some wanted North Korea to apologise to the victims and their families, they expected the South Korean Government to act decisively to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy. There were still others who seemed convinced that Pyongyang would definitely deny any involvement and feared that heightening of tensions would result in an armed conflict. The ruling Grand National Party vowed strong retaliation against North Korea and appealed to the Opposition members to join its anti-Pyongyang resolution in the parliament. Yet, as is usually the case in a democracy, the Opposition parties attacked the government over its inability to keep the nation safe. The main Opposition Democratic Party and the third largest Liberal Forward Party demanded the resignation of the entire Cabinet. The Democratic Party even challenged the credibility of the government’s findings and demanded a separate investigation by the parliament.

The government has urged hundreds of companies doing business with the communist neighbour not to pursue new ventures. There are over 100 South Korean manufacturing firms operating in the North Korean border town of Kaesong and they are a worried lot as they have high economic stakes. Over 42,000 North Koreans work in the complex and this venture is seen as the last remaining symbol of reconciliation.

India too condemned the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan and commended Seoul for handling the issue with maturity and restraint. The Indian response came after South Korea shared the report of the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group that probed the sinking of Cheonan. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna is to visit Seoul, possibly in June 2010, to intensify ties with South Korea to develop closer economic links with Asean+3. India itself is a part of ASEAN+6 which could evolve into the world’s largest trading bloc. North Korea is neither a member of the 10-country ASEAN nor one of the six nations on the outer ring of the grouping.8

The United States and other nations expressed outrage over the North’s hand in the Cheonan sinking incident. In a statement issued by the White House, it said: “North Korea must understand that belligerence towards its neighbors and defiance of the international community are (sic) signs of weakness, not strength. Such unacceptable behavior only deepens North Korea’s isolation.”9 While expressing deep sympathy to President Lee and the Korean people for the loss of 46 sailors, President Obama strongly condemned the act of aggression that led to their deaths. As tensions heighten in the Korean peninsula over the Cheonan incident, Obama finds yet another foreign headache to attend.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the probe outcome “deeply troubling”. Even when US officials were considering a variety of options, ranging from the UN Security Council action to additional US penalties, China, North Korea’s last remaining major ally, issued a guarded response. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said that the tragedy should be dealt with appropriately to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. Tiankai called the sinking “unfortunate” but did not outrightly denounce Pyongyang. As China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power, winning Beijing’s support is very important for Seoul if it takes up the case before the Security Council.

President Obama finds himself in a tricky situation. If the response would be too tough, it could spark a dangerous reaction in the nuclear-armed neo-Stalinist state but if the response would be lenient, that might encourage more attacks. Under the circumstance, a military response from either the US or South Korea seems unlikely immediately. Both Washington and Seoul fear that a severe reaction might set in motion events that could provoke a North Korean military reaction or even erode Kim Jong-Il’s grip on power. If there is war or turbulence inside North Korea, it could have devastating security consequences, which no country would rejoice. Victor Cha, who holds the Korea Chair at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, observes: “You want to deter the North Koreans from doing this sort of things again, but you also don’t want to start a war.”10

Lee also spoke to Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Hatoyama supported South Korea and said the attack was “unforgivable”. Though Hatoyama “strongly condemned” the incident, he did not elaborate on how Japan might respond to the incident. Without predicting what will happen, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said that the Japanese Government needs to take firm measures and should work closely with the US and South Korea.11

As a response to the incident, the US and South Korea are likely to step up their anti-submarine activities. South Korea on its own might also bar North Korean vessels from its waters. Seoul might cut off imports of North Korean commodities, particularly fish products, too. Such a measure would badly hurt the North Korean economy, which is already in a bad shape. Even when talks of a harsh response are going on, there also lurks a fear of escalating tension to the point of clashes. An aggressive response by South Korea and the US could trigger the collapse of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian regime. China is unlikely to let that happen for its own strategic interests. A grim scenario that projects a potentially catastrophic internal power struggle might also result in massive refugee outflows that might destabilise northeastern China. That leaves with the situation of an unstable Korean peninsula for some time with Pyongyang’s nuisance value being tolerated in order to avoid a major conflagration in the region.

Plausible Reasons for Cheonan’s Sinking

There could be many reasons. The most important reason seems to be the fact that for years Pyongyang has “used apocalyptic threats, a nuclear programme and occasional firefights as a means to keep its dynastic ruler in power despite deepening economic misery”.12 Cheonan’s sinking is not the stand-alone event but a part of a change in the general pattern of Pyongyang’s behaviour. In fact, ever since Kim Jong-Il suffered a stroke in August 2008, the regime has been extraordinarily bold and impetuous. The Kim regime seems to have abandoned the earlier approach of calculating carefully the costs and benefits of any action to put pressure on the outside world in favour of bold measures as the nuclear tests of May 2009, detaining of two US scribes in August 2009 and sentencing them to hard labour and later releasing them when Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang, walking out of the Six-Party Talks, and the Cheonan sinking incident would demonstrate.

Earlier, Kim tended to use the “threat” card only to extract maximum assistance from the outside world. But from April 2009 onwards, all diplomatic cautions were thrown to the wind. When the regime realised that “smile diplomacy” did not get it what it wanted, it resorted to the policy of “hostility”.13 Besides the Cheonan incident, it froze South Korean real estate in the Geumgang Mountain tourist zone. The regime even dispatched two spies to Seoul to assassinate Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-level North Korean official ever to defect to South Korea. These incidents were spiced with continuous belligerent utterances emanating with frequency from Pyongyang.

Why such acts of belligerent behaviour? It is possible that Kim and his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, felt confident after North Korea emerged as a de facto nuclear state and thought that possession of nuclear weapons endowed them to talk with arrogance and boldness with the outside world. In defiance of international pressure, it succeeded in transferring nuclear technology to Syria several years ago and is now suspected to doing the same to Myanmar. Its nuclear links with Pakistan are all too well known. Also, having chosen Kim Jong-un as his successor, the Dear Leader probably wanted to project him as a strong and decisive leader. Moreover, there are suspicions that much of North Korea’s activities since April 2009 are engineered and executed to perfection by the junior Kim. If this is true, the process of power transfer is already on fast track. There is yet another possible reason behind Pyongyang’s belligerency. Since the economy is in a bad shape, there are internal difficulties as people are facing hardship in the absence of availability of consumables and foodgrains. The Kim regime could have resorted to such belligerent acts with a view to unite the people behind the emerging new leader. This could have been a manifestation of internal leadership turmoil in Pyongyang and the pursuit of a hard-line external policy.

It may be remembered that in November 2009, naval vessels of both the Koreas tangled in the disputed West Sea area where the altercation between the two resulted in the deaths of two North Koreans. At that time, a North Korean patrol boat opened fire on a South Korean one after crossing the Yellow River border, only to retreat in flames. The two sides also traded gunfire along the border in 1999 and 2002. The attack on Cheonan could have been chosen as the appropriate means to cement the regime’s hold on the military and to assuage the feelings of the military which felt disgraced over the November 2009 skirmishes. If the comparison of the Cheonan incident with the November 2009 altercation is made, the former is entirely a different level of hostility and therefore the North Korean response was belligerent. The last act of this magnitude involving losses of life occurred in November 1987 when North Korean terrorists blew up a South Korean airliner (KAL 858), killing 115 passengers and crew over the Andaman Sea. If the Cheonan incident is linked to the November 2009 clash, then the North Korean retaliation is utterly disproportionate as only two North Korean lives were lost as against the death of 46 South Korean sailors. Viewed differently, the North Korean “act could have been a form of coercive diplomacy by trying to force the conservative and non-engagement-inclined ROK Government into negotiations in which North Korea could extract aid and assistance”.14 It could also be a reflection of Pyongyang’s desire to demonstrate to the world that it has already enhanced its naval capabilities.

Based on the above premise, it can be discerned that three factors—nuclear-armed boldness, the succession issue, and economic malaise—have been influencing North Korea’s recent behaviour.

Way Out?

There is almost unanimity amongst major powers having stakes in the peace and stability in the Asian region that North Korea must not act in such a provocative manner in future. There also seems to be the coalescing of views that a strong and internationally coordinated response to the Cheonan incident is needed, lest such reckless provocations are likely to continue and may become more frequent.

As the affected party, South Korea and the international community need to respond strongly and firmly. As an immediate measure, a joint South Korea-US military exercise near the DMZ or a joint anti-submarine exercise at the Northern Limit Line (NLL) could be a possibility that merits consideration. Also, the UN Security Council needs to pass a resolution denouncing the North Korean act as a part of the international diplomatic response. Economic measures in the form of sanctions and freezing of assistance could be yet another option. Though these options, if exercised, are shortterm, what would be needed is a long-term strategy that would secure lasting peace in the region.

When Kim Jong-Il visited China in early May 2010, President Hu Jintao subtly suggested to Kim to open up his country’s economy to the world and launch serious economic reforms. If this is a clue to China’s policy towards North Korea in the long term, this needs to be pursued vigorously. The world response to the North Korean issue has to be two-pronged: implement denuclearisation as well as encourage economic reforms. Such a policy is likely to have Chinese endorsement more easily.

Therefore, a proportionate military response by South Korea runs the risk of escalation and therefore must be avoided. In the near term, the US and South Korean Navies could undertake naval exercise in its coastal waters as a form of muscle-flexing in the region to deter North Korea from launching any such misadventure.15 An ideal approach seems to be to seeking UN authorisation to impose an embargo on conventional arms trade with North Korea related to naval capabilities. China might come on the way to implement such a measure, however.

Thus far, the tight-lipped response of China,16 North Korea’s sole supporter, looks to some like a snub to a worried region and a lost opportunity to assert influence. If China indeed aspires to be a world leader, this is an opportunity to show its real leadership quality in the interest of securing peace and stability in the Asian region. Professor Lee Jung-hoon of Yonsei University is of the opinion that if China fails to discharge its expected responsibilities, it will not be seen as a true global leader but “it will simply remain a socialist giant”.17 For its own strategic interests, it suits China to continue to “prop up the Kim regime rather than risk the North imploding in chaos that would spill into its territory and, perhaps, lead to South Korea and its ally the United States moving right up to its border”.18 This risk undermines Beijing’s attempt to play the role of a great power in the region, no matter that it hurts its ties with South Korea, one of its leading trade partners.

The guarded Chinese response to the Cheonan incident threatened to undo the over-a-decade of assiduous diplomatic efforts through endless round of summits, visit of top leaders on regular bilateral trips and its idea of creating a “harmonious world” as a cure of all ills. Now that harmony seems to have come to a naught.


South Korea is angry and it is justified. Yet, it cannot afford to strike back at the North. Investors in South Korea have long tolerated the acrimonious relationship between the two siblings as long as the threat of actual war is remote. President Lee’s response seemed matured as, despite anger in South Korea, he did not blame North Korea until the report of the international team of investigators was submitted. Like China, South Korea also dreads the possible collapse of the North. If North Korea suddenly collapses, it will have to bear the cost of absorbing 23 million North Koreans as an immediate plan of unification. Such a huge population has little idea of how modern business works. Major investors will flee at the sight of risk. Therefore, South Korea is offering major investments across the border to reduce the pain of what it believes will be the eventual unification.

The world has limited leverage over North Korea. North Korea’s overseas trade is limited, except with China. It no longer admits United Nations inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities. In 2003, it announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Then in April 2009, it walked out of the Six-Party Talks. South Korea, Japan and the US have said that sinking of Cheonan makes it harder to resume the Six-Party Talks with North Korea over the fate of its nuclear programme.

During Kim Jong Il’s visit to Beijing, President Hu Jintao characterised the Six-Party Talks as “frank” and stated that parties should show sincerity in promoting the talks and make positive efforts towards that goal.19 On his part, Kim promised “to provide favourable conditions for the resumption of the six-party talks …declaring that the DPRK remains unchanged in its basic stand to preserve the aim of denuclearising the Korean peninsula, implement the joint statement adopted at the Six-Party Talks and pursue a peaceful solution through dialogue”.20 However, in view of the Cheonan investigation report, the process is unlikely to move forward in the near future.

In the interest of world peace, the Six-Party Talks must not be abandoned, though public opinion in South Korea has hardened and both Washington and Seoul have reviewed their positions on the Six-Party Talks following the JIP report. As denuclearisation is of paramount importance and the Six-Party Talks is the only vehicle in which North Korea will be willing to participate in it, postponing indefinitely its resumption will not serve any purpose. While South Korea should de-link the Cheonan incident from the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, Japan also should de-link the abduction issue. The ultimate ball seems to remain in China’s court. If China fails to play its card in this critical situation, its credentials as an aspiring power will remain questionable.


1. Melissa Hanham, “Impact of the Cheonan Incident on the Six-Party Talks”, NTI Issue Brief, May 17, 2010, incident_six_party_talks.html


3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.




10. Quoted in

11. Masami Ito, “Hatoyama slams North over Cheonan sinking”, The Japan Times, May 21, 2010,

12. Jonathan Thatcher and Chris Buckley, “N. Korea gets blamed; China, S. Korea get the mess”, May 20, 2010,

13. Yoo Young Kwan, “North Korea gambles once again”, The Japan Times, May 19, 2010,

14. “The Sinking of the Cheonan”,

15. Mark Landler, “Diplomatic Storm Brewing Over Korean Peninsula”, The New York Times, May 19, 2010, ref=world&pagewanted=print

16. China called the sinking as “unfortunate” but refused to be drawn into the condemnation of Pyongyang.

17. Quoted in Thatcher and Buckley, n. 12.

18. Ibid.

19. Lan Hong and Guang She, “EKP Secretary General Kin Jong-Il Makes an Unofficial Visit to China”, Xinhua, May 7, 2010,

20. “Kim Jong Il Makes Unofficial Visit to China”, KCNA, May 9, 2010,

Dr Rajaram Panda is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail:

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.