Cheonan Tragedy

April 7, 2010

This will not be breaking news to many people, especially those living in Korea, but I am due to guide an adult conversation class where this will be the topic under discussion and so I decided to throw the details up here.

ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772)

On March 26th 2010 a South Korean naval vessel, the ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772), broke in two and sank following an as-yet-unidentified explosion within or near the stern of the ship. The Cheonan had been patrolling in the Yellow Sea off the south-west coast of Baengnyeong Island and near the disputed maritime border with North Korea, the Northern Limit Line. The NLL has been the scene of various naval skirmishes and incidents over the years (see here and here) and the fear now is that North Korea may have been involved in the sinking of the vessel.

Of the 104 crewmen onboard, 58 were initially rescued (including Capt. Choi Won-il) with the remaining 46 unaccounted for and now believed dead as rescue operations ceased on April 3rd. Rough seas had hampered the considerable rescue efforts mounted by South Korea to locate the missing sailors and even lead to the death of a rescue diver from the ROK navy, warrant officer Han Joon-ho, who slipped into unconsciousness due to underwater pressure and later died. The focus has now shifted to salvage operations to retrieve the wreckage and investigate the possible causes of the disaster.

At this stage, the possibility of North Korean involvement is mere speculation and theories as to the cause of the explosion which sank the Cheonan have varied from the suspicion that the vessel was struck by a torpedo or mine, to the idea that it may have run aground in shallow water and sustained critical damage to its hull. During the immediate rescue operation launched as the Cheonan was sinking, the ROKS Sokcho, (a Pohang-class corvette like the Cheonan) which had arrived at the site 80 minutes after the unexplained explosion, detected an “unidentified object” moving northward and opened fire toward it following authorization from the fleet. The firing ceased when the object crossed the NLL and soon disappeared from radar. The South Korean Ministry of Defense later stated that this object was a flock of birds that had been misidentified on radar.

For his part, the Defense Minister Kim Tae-young has confused things somewhat by simultaneously stating that a torpedo was the more likely cause behind the sinking of the Cheonan but that sonar on the ill-fated ship had not detected any torpedoes and “the odds were low” that North Korean submarines could have been involved. The Times newspaper reported

Sensitive surveillance and satellite data showed there were no North Korean units in the area, leading to speculation that the ship had hit a mine.

Kim Tae-young

The official line from Cheong Wa Dae (The Blue House – the executive office) is that it is still too early to know exactly what happened and there is no evidence as yet that North Korea was involved (although they have not completely ruled this out either). The President’s office is reportedly unhappy at the Defense Minister’s loose speculation and issued him with a memo instructing him to keep to this same line. Earlier theories floated in the immediate aftermath of the Cheonan sinking also included the possibility, raised by Professor Baek Jeom-ki of Busan University, that the ship grounded in shallow water and broke in two once the stern had become flooded and weighed down with water that had come in through the damaged hull. Others speculated that an internal explosion, the result of the ammunition storage on the Cheonan somehow blowing up, was the possible cause. However, these suspicions now seem to have been rejected –

The Navy’s chief of staff, Kim Sung-Chan, has said the ship’s ammunition storage room did not appear to have exploded and “the ship was broken in two because of powerful outside pressure or an (exterior) explosion”

Although the Defense Ministry has downplayed the idea of North Korean submarines being involved, there is the worrying possibility that semi-submersibles may have carried out the attack. These small, flat vessels can carry two torpedoes and are capable of disappearing completely underwater. Other commentators have cited the precedent of the suicide attack on the USS Cole by Islamic terrorists to demonstrate that advanced warships remain vulnerable to unconventional attacks. North Korea has thus far remained silent. Speculation as to their involvement points to the possible desire for revenge following the Battle of Daecheong of November last year and the likelihood of needing to focus on external enemies to distract the North Korean populace from the regime’s disastrous recent mismanagement of the economy. Interestingly, the ROKS Cheonan was also involved in the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong in 2002, when it arrived along with another corvette to reinforce South Korean patrol boats exchanging fire with North Korean vessels.

The sunken stern of the Cheonan

That’s a summarized status report for now, folks. All we can do at the moment is await the results of the ongoing investigation. Will the cause be revealed as the diabolical doings of the naughty Norks, or will the mystery of the Cheonan sinking remain unsolved? Watch this space!*

(*Actually, you’re probably better watching reputable news sites if you want proper, up-to-the-minute shit. If you’re drifting by to see what’s up a week or two after the fact then I’m your man.)

Update now here.



  1. RE: Watch this space…is it true that the Dear leader has picked himself in the world cup squad? I read it a few weeks ago but im startin to think that might have been on the 1st of April.

  2. Ha, haven’t heard anything about that. Heard he was going to ban all coverage of the World Cup bar heavily edited highlights of North Korea, intent on capturing whatever brief moments of semi-decent football the team plays.

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