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Why North Korea Attacked the Cheonan in 2010

100826-N-7478G-235 PYEONGTAEK, Republic of Korea (Aug. 26, 2010) Capt. Rudy Lupton, commanding officer of the U.S. 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge, examines the bent propellor of Republic of Korea (ROK) corvette (ROKS) Cheonan (PCC 772). A non-contact homing torpedo exploded near the ship Mar. 26, 2010, sinking it, resulting in the death of 46 ROK navy sailors. Blue Ridge serves under Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 7/Task Force (CTF) 76, the Navy's only forward deployed amphibious force. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cynthia Griggs/Released)

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.

Cheonan

100913-N-4366B-501 PYEONGTAEK, Republic of Korea (Sep. 13, 2010) Rear Adm. Hyun Sung Um, commander of Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy 2nd Fleet, and Rear Adm. Seung Joon Lee, deputy commander of ROK Navy 2nd Fleet, brief Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, on the findings of the Joint Investigation Group Report of the ROK Navy corvette ROKS Cheonan (PCC 772). A non-contact homing torpedo exploded near the ship Mar. 26, 2010, sinking it, resulting in the death of 46 ROK Navy sailors. During his Republic of Korea visit, Walsh was the keynote speaker at the 2010 International Sea Power Symposium, took part in activities commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Incheon Landing, and met with senior military counterparts. (U.S. Navy photo by LT Jared Apollo Burgamy/Released)..

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.

Cheonan Wreckage

PYEONGTAEK, Republic of Korea (Aug. 26, 2010) Officers assigned to the U.S. 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) examine the damage to the Republic of Korea Navy corvette ROKS Cheonan (PCC 772). A non-contact homing torpedo exploded near the ship Mar. 26, 2010, sinking it, resulting in the death of 46 ROK navy sailors. Blue Ridge serves under Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 7/Task Force (CTF) 76, the Navy’s only forward-deployed amphibious force. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cynthia Griggs/Released)

Possible Motives

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.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John Burzynski

    February 1, 2021 at 5:53 am

    Mr Fuhrman,

    The citation that you hyperlinked to the word “sunk” in the third paragraph correctly indicates that the ROKNS Cheonan (PCC 772) was sunk at 9:22 PM (KST) on Friday, March 26, 2010. You, however, wrote that the incident occurred in the morning.

    I remember the date vividly as I was called about the incident shortly after it occurred. As a member of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) staff, we immediately began gathering facts that would be used by our Special Investigation Team (SIT) to determine if the July 27, 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement had been violated, by whom and what provisions of the agreement were violated.

    When analyzing the incident, I believe it’s important to note the time it occurred as that may have had a negative impact on ROK Navy surveillance and their ability to detect the KPA Navy submarine in vicinity of the Cheonan. More importantly, the time of the attack was a contributing factor to the ROK Navy’s ability to search and rescue sailors from the Cheonan and may have caused an increase in the number who died.

    When our SIT investigation was completed, the UNC Commander directed that the investigation report be sent to the UN Security Council through appropriate channels. You can find the report at: https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/688885?ln=en. It’s worth noting that unclassified data from the report from the ROK-led Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group constituted portions of the evidence gathered by the UNCMAC SIT team, and the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group report was an enclosure to the SIT report that was sent to the UN Security Council.

    It’s also noteworthy that the UNC Commander directed that the SIT report be transmitted to the UNSC to put a mark on the wall regarding DPRK/KPA behavior and apparent disregard on for the provisions of a Armistice Agreement that they signed in 1953.

    The UNCMAC Secretariat conducted a series of meetings with KPA counterparts in Panmunjeom between March-August 2010 in an attempt to gain KPA agreement to hold general officer-level talks on the Cheonan sinking, to propose that the KPA and UNC conduct a “joint investigation” of the sinking incident as mandated by the Armistice Agreement and to propose measures to reduce tensions in Korea. As you noted, the DPRK/KPA denied culpability, but at the meetings with UNCMAC demanded that the evidence that the ROK and UNC possessed be turned over to them to conduct their own investigation — a ruse to attack the credibility of that evidence. The UNC proposed permitting KPA investigators to enter the ROK to view the evidence, including the wreckage of the Cheonan. To reciprocate, the KPA was asked to permit UNC investigators to visit specific sites in the DPRK to gather additional evidence. The KPA broke off the talks. This may have, in part, been caused by the UNSC President’s statement (https://undocs.org/S/PRST/2010/13) which condemned the attack on the Cheonan.

    The SIT report on the Cheonan was the first of two special incident reports that the UNC sent to the UNSC in 2010. The other (https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/699181?ln=en) was on the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that you covered in a recent posting. Another mark on the wall noting DPRK/KPA misbehavior.

    Regardless of the motivations behind each of these incidents, it’s important to note that the KPA infrequently violates the Armistice Agreement with such vicious, hostile kinetic actions. But when it does, it’s important for the international community to be involved in the investigations of such incidents and to condemn them a flagrant violations of the international agreement that the KPA signed in July 1953 to cease hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.

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