The Sinking of the Cheonan

At 9:22 p.m. on March 26, the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan sank in the Yellow Sea just south of the disputed Northern Limit Line near Baengnyeong Island after an explosion in the ship’s stern ripped it in two. Of the 104 South Korean sailors on board, 58 were rescued; 46 are dead or remain missing. Experts from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Sweden have been assisting in the on-going investigation. Nearly a month after the sinking, South Korean investigators have confirmed that the cause of the explosion was external, fueling speculation that the Cheonan was hit by a torpedo or a floating mine. North Korea has denied any involvement in the Cheonan’s sinking.

Q1: Did North Korea sink the ROK naval vessel with a torpedo?

A1: Currently, there is no definitive evidence of a North Korean attack on the ROK vessel. Salvage operations and the investigation have concluded only that the blast impact originated from outside the vessel (i.e., the explosion was not due to some catastrophic internal malfunction of the ship) and that the nature of the impact indicates it was not an errant floating mine left over from the Korean War. However, officials involved in the investigation speaking off-the-record indicate very strong suspicions that a North Korean torpedo was involved. Moreover, recent polls show that 80 percent of the South Korean public believe it was a North Korean action that sunk the ship.

Q2: What has the United States done in response to the incident?

A2: President Obama sent condolences to the ROK president on the deaths of the 46 ROK sailors. The United States has also cooperated with the salvage operation and the forensics of determining the cause of the sinking.

Q3: If the ship was destroyed by a North Korean torpedo, isn’t this typical of North Korea’s bluster and occasional provocations in the disputed West Sea area?

A3: North and South Korean vessels have tangled before in the disputed West Sea area with the last major provocation in November 2009 where an altercation resulted in the deaths of two North Koreans. But this act, if done by North Korea, would constitute an entirely different level of hostility. 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.

Q4: If North Korea is implicated in the act, why did they do this?

A4: We can only posit theories as to why this would have been done:

  1. The action could have been a disproportionate retaliation for a November 2009 clash in the West Sea that led to the loss of two North Korean lives;
  2. The act could have been a form of coercive diplomacy trying to force the conservative and nonengagement-inclined ROK government into negotiations in which North Korea could extract aid and assistance;
  3. The act could have been a form of “swaggering” to demonstrate to South Korea and to the region its recent efforts at enhancing its naval capabilities;
  4. Perhaps most ominously, the act could be a manifestation of internal leadership turmoil in Pyongyang and the pursuit of a hard-line external policy.

Q5: Will this incident impact efforts to restart the Six-Party Talks?

A5: It certainly does not help. Quiet efforts by the United States and others to engage in preliminary discussions with the North Koreans to restart Six-Party Talks prior to the ship’s sinking have all been shut down as a result of this incident. The ROK government has made clear that it is not interested in returning to the Six-Party Talks until there is a conclusion to the investigation of the sinking.

Q6: If the ship is found to have been destroyed by a North Korean torpedo, what courses of action are available?

A6: The likely responses range from military to political.

  • A proportionate military retaliation by the South risks escalation and therefore does not appear likely.
  • There is likely to be a show of reinforced U.S.-ROK capabilities, naval and otherwise, in the region.
  • There may be efforts to seek UN Security Council authorization of an embargo on conventional arms trade to North Korea related to naval capabilities, but Chinese agreement may be difficult to obtain.
  • South Korea, the United States, and other members of the international community may also approach China and demand restrictive actions on North Korea given the severity of their provocations, including the denial of a reportedly scheduled visit by Kim Jong-il to Beijing sometime in the next month.
  • A North Korea–perpetrated act would highlight the substantially changed security conditions surrounding the peninsula since 2007 when the United States and South Korea negotiated transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON). This act, Kim Jong-il’s stroke, and the May 2009 second North Korean nuclear test provides enough justification for Seoul and Washington to reconsider the 2012 timetable for transfer of wartime OPCON.

Victor D. Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair