2010 was a tumultuous year on the Korean Peninsula, one that nearly ended with the outbreak of war following a North Korean artillery bombardment of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. That event nearly resulted in war in no small part as a result of already heightened tensions on the peninsula in the aftermath of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by what was later determined to be a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine. The sinking of the Cheonan significantly harmed inter-Korean relations and helped to set the stage for the events later that year that would bring North and South Korea to the brink of war.
Maritime Clashes and the Sinking of the Cheonan
Maritime clashes between the naval forces of North and South Korea are not uncommon. Following the end of the Korean War, United Nations Command established the Northern Limit Line (NLL) to serve as a maritime boundary between the North and the South, largely as a means by which to prevent South Korean vessels from sailing too far north and instigating a resumption of hostilities. The NLL has been the subject of frequent protestations by North Korea, and has on more than one occasion been the cause of armed naval clashes. In 1999, and again in 2002, North and South Korean naval vessels engaged in skirmishes near the island of Yeonpyeong, resulting in the loss of an estimated 60 DPRK sailors and the death of 5 South Korean naval personnel over the course of the two engagements. In 2009 the two navies again clashed off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula, this time resulting in the death of one North Korean sailor.
The Cheonan was sunk on the morning of March 26, 2010, following an explosion in the ship’s stern. 58 of the Cheonan’s 104-strong crew were rescued, with the remaining 46 killed in action. South Korean government officials were quick to dismiss speculation regarding possible North Korean involvement in the ship’s sinking, with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak denying in particular reports that a North Korean submarine had torpedoed the Cheonan.
Investigation and Fallout
Following the recovery of the vessel, an investigation was launched into the cause of the Cheonan’s sinking. The final report by the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group – which included participation by experts from the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, and Australia – concluded that the Cheonan had been sunk by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. Based on analysis of hull deformation on the Cheonan, witness testimony, autopsies of deceased personnel, impact simulations, and recovered torpedo parts, the report concluded that the Cheonan “was sunk as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea” and that “evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine.” The report also highlighted North Korea’s substantial submarine fleet.
North Korea denied immediately denied its involvement in the Cheonan’s sinking, with an official statement claiming that the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group’s findings were based on “fabricated” evidence. Despite the DPRK’s denial of involvement, following the release of the investigation’s report South Korean President Lee announced a series of unilateral sanctions targeting the North that effectively halted all South Korean trade with and travel to the North, while also denying North Korean ships the use of South Korean sea lanes. In addition to the sanctions, President Lee also announced plans to resume propaganda broadcasts at the border, which had been halted in 2004. North Korean military officials responded with threats to fire on any new “psychological warfare services” established by South Korea. In response to opposition from U.S. officials regarding the resumption of the broadcasts, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young announced that the military had decided to delay the resumption of the broadcasts.
Unlike the artillery attack that would take place later that year, North Korea’s denial of involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan has ensured a lack of any official explanation. Instead, analysts have offered a number of possible explanations for North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan. For some, the sinking of the Cheonan is simply a continuation of North Korea’s contestation of the NLL, and was perhaps a disproportionate retaliation for the naval engagement the year prior. Others have focused on the timing, suggesting that the attack may have been in response to a major joint exercise that concluded in the days leading up to the Cheonan’s sinking; indeed, North Korea has a history of engaging in provocative actions in connection with U.S. and South Korean military exercises. Others reflected on the rather ominous possibility that the order to sink the Cheonan did not come from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and that the sinking was an act of insubordination that represented some form of internal turmoil among the North Korean leadership. Still others posited that the sinking of the Cheonan was an attempt to force the South Korean government into negotiations, or that the attack was designed to highlight improvements in and the threat posed by North Korean naval capabilities.
Whatever its motivations, North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan, and the South Korean response, significantly harmed inter-Korean relations and helped shape tensions on the Korean peninsula that would be further strained by events later that year.
Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a current graduate student at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.