The ‘Cheonan’ Investigation: Results And Aftermath


By Rukmani Gupta

The South Korean government has made public the findings of an international probe into the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette ‘Cheonan’ on 26 March, that killed 46 sailors. President Lee Myung-bak has categorically stated that it was a North Korean torpedo that struck the Cheonan and led to its sinking.

While it had long been speculated that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was directly involved in the sinking of the navy corvette, North Korea has consistently denied any involvement in the incident. The findings of the multi-national investigation team now provide conclusive evidence of North Korean complicity in the sinking of the Cheonan, irrevocably refuting DPRK’s tenuous claims to innocence.

The Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) collected propulsion parts, including propulsion motor with propellers and a steering section from the site of the sinking. This evidence matched the specifications of a North Korean torpedo, “CHT-02D,” drawing for which were obtained from a booklet advertising North Korean weapons for export. Also, the marking in Hangul found inside the propulsion section was found to be consistent with the marking on a North Korean training torpedo retrieved in 2003.

In addition, the findings of the Multinational Combined Intelligence Task Force, that included the United States (US), Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, found that a few small submarines and a supporting mother ship left a North Korean naval base in the Yellow Sea 2-3 days prior to the attack and returned to port 2-3 days after the attack. Since it was confirmed that all submarines from neighboring countries were either in or near their respective home bases at the time of the incident, it is quite likely that one of the North Korean small submarines was responsible for the torpedo strike.

In the wake of these revelations, a spokesman from the National Defense Commission of the DPRK has called the conclusion reached by the investigators a “fabrication” and announced that North Korea will dispatch inspectors to verify the claim. Despite this rhetoric, North Korea knows well that the investigation and its conclusion will have credibility in the eyes of the world. Painting itself as a self-righteous victim, the DPRK has warned that any retaliation could lead to an “all-out” war and it will strongly react with “the total freeze of the inter-Korean relations, the complete abrogation of the north-south agreement on non-aggression and a total halt to the inter-Korean cooperation undertakings.”

Japan and the United States have already announced support for whatever action the South Korean government deems appropriate. In a muted statement, China called the sinking of the Cheonan “unfortunate”, asking all parties to remain “cool-headed and self-restrained” and “avoid an escalation of the situation.” Beijing also stated that it was ‘reviewing’ the findings of the international investigation. Some indications of Beijing’s views on the matter could be found during Kim Jong-Il’s recent visit to China. Although Kim indicated a willingness to restart the six-party talks, Beijing maintained uncharacteristic silence on the issue, eventually accepting the South Korean and American condition that a resumption of talks would await the resolution of the Cheonan incident.

It is imperative that North Korea be made to understand that aggression at will is unacceptable. However, the question of what method should be employed to clearly communicate this to the DPRK remains problematic. It can be expected that the US and South Korea will conduct military exercises in order to review security arrangements and reassure the South Korean populace. That there will be a move for further sanctions against North Korea is also a distinct possibility. Towards this end, Chinese cooperation will be necessary. Although the Global Times has quoted Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China as saying that “sanctions should be imposed if North Korea is proved to be behind the attack,” he also suggests that China “should not take a stance on either side or express views on the incident.” Such a position accurately reflects the Chinese dilemma in the current scenario. As a sponsor of the six-party talks, it has invested much in the peace process on the Korean peninsula. It has also projected the image of a law abiding international player. A categorical condemnation by China could well alienate DPRK and China would stand to lose whatever limited influence it has over its problematic neighbour. This would not only be a blow to Chinese aspirations to greater global prominence but seriously impede a resumption of dialogue with DPRK in the future. A North Korea bereft of its only ally is likely to engage a policy of brinkmanship even more vigorously. Perhaps all that China can do is support some strengthening of sanctions and offer to mediate once again.

It is reasonable to assume that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will discuss the Cheonan issue with Chinese leaders during her current visit, a coordination of policy between the US and China may be arrived at. We will have to wait to till Clinton’s visit to Seoul on 26 May to find out in what direction the parties concerned will move.

Rukmani Gupta is a Research Fellow at IPCS and may be reached at [email protected]. This article was published by IPCS.


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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