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Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky, the Director of Research at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) and Senior Editor of Defense & Foreign Affairs publications (including the Global…

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Korean War Games: The Sinking of the Cheonan

The torpedo fired by a North Korean (DPRK) Yeon-O-class submarine at the ROK Navy Po Hang-class corvette, ROKS Cheonan on the night of March 26, 2010, highlighted the failure of US Pres. Barack Obama’s appeasement policy toward the DPRK.

In early 2010, Pyongyang was adamant on shielding the deteriorating health of Kim Jong-Il in the midst of the tortuous succession of Kim Jong-Un.

Moreover, Pyongyang resolved to protect the transfer of power between generations at KPA (Korean People’s Army) High Command from Western pressure and temptations. Hence, it became imperative for Pyongyang to launch a provocation which would both put the US-led West on the defensive and make impossible any rapprochement and economic inducements (of the type that corrupted some of the KPA’s best friends among the PLA’s high command).

The extent of the revitalization of the KPA would be announced only in mid-April 2010, on Kim Il-Sung’s birthday anniversary which is the traditional day of celebrating KPA Day. According to Kim Jong-Il’s Order No. 0045, 100 military senior-officers, including four full generals — Chief Vice-Director of the National Security Agency U Dong-Cheuk, Commander Lee Byung-Cheol (Air Force), Admiral Jung Myung-Do (Navy), and Artillery Commander Jung Ho-Gyun (Army) — were promoted. This was the largest number of officers promoted since 1997, when 129 senior officers were promoted in an effort to bolster the completion of Kim Jong-Il’s assumption of all key power positions in Pyongyang.

From the very beginning, Kim Jong-Il was focusing on the use of special forces and intelligence resources.

This preoccupation became apparent as Kim Jong-Il increased the frequency of his inspection visits to key special forces units. This was not an easy decision, for any operation launched in early 2010 would be the first major special forces operation to be conducted under the DPRK’s new Reconnaissance Bureau. The Reconnaissance Bureau was created in February 2009 as a new integrated super-agency in charge of all espionage and special operations against the RoK. The organizations integrated into the Reconnaissance Bureau include the espionage department of the WPK (including the highly sensitive a unit known as Room 35 under Kim Jong-Il’s personal supervision), and the wide variety of military reconnaissance and special operations units.

Formally, the Reconnaissance Bureau is answerable to the powerful National Defense Commission (NDC). In practice, it is a separate entity which is “directly controlled” by Gen. O Kuk-Yol: the closest military confidant of Kim Jong-Il and formally the Commission’s vice-chairman. O Kuk-Yol has long been involved in the development of covert and special operations of strategic importance, and is credited with masterminding audacious infiltration and strike techniques using mini-submarines, semi-submersible vessels and hang gliders. “He is a consummate strategist,” said a high-ranking North Korean defector. “He is also very loyal to Kim Jong-Il and has gained his trust.”

The direct Chief of the Reconnaissance Bureau is Lt.-Gen. Kim Yong-Chol, a protégé of O Kuk-Yol. According to a RoK intelligence report, a North Korean official in Beijing opined that the sinking of the Cheonan “was the brainchild of Kim Yong-Chol”. Indeed, in mid-April 2010, North Korean media hailed the political importance of Kim Yong-Chol. On April 25, 2010 — the 78th anniversary of the founding of the KPA — the leading story in the Pyongyang media was Kim Jong-Il’s inspection visit to Army Unit 586. As usual, the actual date of the visit was not mentioned. Kim Jong-Il and KPA Minister Kim Yong-Chun were received by Lt.-Gen. Kim Yong-Chol who was presented as the local commander. Hence, RoK intelligence surmises that Unit 586 was a cover for the Reconnaissance Bureau or its Headquarters. There are indications that are yet to be proven that Kim Jong-Il’s visit to Unit 586 actually took place in mid-March 2010. If that’s the case, it is safe to assume that the real purpose of the visit was to be briefed on the forthcoming operation against the Cheonan.

The naval operation to sink the Cheonan was most likely under the direct command of Gen. Kim Myong-Guk, the Head of the Operations Bureau in the General Staff of the KPA. Kim Myong-Guk is a special and covert operations expert who was personally in charge of the various cross-border and naval clashes between the KPA and the RoK military. However, in Winter 2009, he was quietly demoted to Lt.-Gen. after the poor showing of the KPA Navy in the November 2009 skirmish near Daecheong Island off the west coast of the DPRK.

Soon after the incident, Kim Jong-Il visited a naval base and ordered the Navy to “raise heroes for do-or-die squads at sea”; that is, suicide special forces. In January 2010, Kim Myong-Guk was shown by the Pyongyang state media with only three stars on his collar. At the same time, because of his expertise and unquestionable loyalty, Kim Myong-Guk was given an opportunity by Kim Yong-Chol to redeem himself by planning and implementing the next major operation. Indeed, in late April 2010, Kim Myong-Guk was shown by Pyongyang media as a full general with four stars. Moreover, he was shown in a politically prominent position escorting Kim Jong-Il on a visit to a military unit during one of the events associated with the 78th anniversary of the founding of the KPA. Kim Myong-Guk was standing close to Kim Jong-Il, pointing to operations maps and explaining a maneuver they were watching. Thus, to a certain extent, the sinking of the Cheonan was Pyongyang’s and the Navy’s settling the score.

Meanwhile, RoK military intelligence did not fail to notice Kim Jong-Il’s personal preoccupation with manned and unmanned torpedoes. The 17th Sniper Corps of the Reconnaissance Bureau controls several “human torpedo units” which are deployed in both the East and West seas at the KPA brigade level. The “human torpedoes” are trained in the use of human-controlled torpedoes (based on World War II Japanese designs) as well as semi-submersible vessels equipped with light torpedoes or other explosives.

“Military authorities detected several signs showing that the North was preparing for revenge for its defeat in the sea skirmish in November last year,” a senior RoK intelligence official warned. “The North intensively trained military units for various means of attack, in particular human torpedoes.” In mid-February 2010, RoK Defense Intelligence Command alerted the Navy that “North Korea was preparing underwater suicide teams in mini-submarines to attack the South”.

The overall turmoil in Pyongyang could not go unnoticed. In mid-March 2010, US intelligence warned that the leadership crisis in Pyongyang reached such severity that a provocation was afoot as the only drastic way out. A senior US intelligence official predicted that Kim Jong-Il “appears to have only three more years to live”; that is until 2013. The US report noted that policy blunders and economic collapse threaten Kim Jong-Il, pushing him “into one of the riskiest periods of his iron rule, which could make him turn even more aggressive in his dealings with the outside world. But even if he chooses to resort once again to scare tactics to try to boost his bargaining power, he lacks a game-changing ace to play that would seriously rattle the international community or spook markets long used to his grandstanding.”

However, the prevailing analysis of US intelligence was that the provocation would be nuclear-related. The analysis anticipated provocations related to the DPRK’s ballistic missile and military nuclear capabilities. In its conclusion, US intelligence belittled the ability of Pyongyang “to rattle the cage” internationally.

Having briefed about the US intelligence assessment, South Korean politicians leaked the key findings.

Pyongyang reacted with fury. On March 25, 2010, Pyongyang formally accused the US and the RoK of “plotting to bring down the socialist system” in the DPRK. The official KCNA accused the US and the RoK of “seeking a regime change” in the DPRK and threatened to launch nuclear strikes to counter any provocations. “Those who seek to bring down the system in the DPRK ... will fall victim to the unprecedented nuclear strikes of the invincible army and the just war to be waged by all the infuriated service personnel and people,” a KPA General Staff spokesman told the KCNA. The communiqué was released on March 26, 2010, at mid-day.

By now, however, the DPRK had already committed to a major military provocation against the RoK which would inevitably evolve into a major confrontation with the RoK and the US. Given the precise line of command from Kim Jong-Il through O Kuk-Yol to Kim Yong-Chol and to Kim Myong-Guk, and given the uniquely close personal relationships between Kim Jong-Il and O Kuk-Yol, it is inconceivable that such a major undertaking would have taken place without the specific and explicit order of Kim Jong-Il in person.

Pyongyang carefully chose the exact location for the March 26, 2010, incident. The islands of Baengnyeong and Daecheong are the most hotly-contested unfinished business of the 1953 armistice which ended the Korean War. Both islands were in RoK hands in 1953, having been captured by the US in 1951 to serve as launching bases for special operations against the DPRK and rescue operations for downed pilots. Indeed, both islands are far from South Korea and quite close to the North Korean coast. Since 1953, these islands have been at the crux of the intense dispute over the inter-Korean maritime “border” west of the peninsula. The UN command unilaterally drew the Northern Limit Line (NLL) on the basis of US and RoK forces in place, thus placing the islands as part of the RoK. Pyongyang and Beijing have never accepted this line and argued that the language of the armistice agreement stipulates that the on-land Military Demarcation Line (MDL) should be simply extended westwards into the West Sea. This would put both islands firmly in DPRK hands.

Since the 1950s, both Koreas were probing these disputed waters whenever they felt the urge to exacerbate the already tenuous situation on the Korean Peninsula. Patrol boats and Navy combatants have frequently exchanged fire, mainly small arms. Coast guard vessels would periodically capture the other side’s fishing boats. And the US and the RoK continue to use both islands as bases for diverse intelligence operations against both the DPRK and the PRC. As a rule, the DPRK accepted the existence of the NLL as à fait accompli.

Starting late January 2010, as the DPRK started heightening the crisis over the disputed waters of the West Sea, the KPA established an artillery testing facility on the coast and began shelling these waters. Pyongyang insisted that these were regular exercises and weapons’ testing, and that the vast majority of shells hit the water on the DPRK’s side of the NLL. Pyongyang also routinely issued due notice to shipping, notices which also covered the West Sea area claimed by the DPRK. At first, RoK Naval vessels fired back whenever shells fell across the NLL, but by early February 2010, Seoul decided it was an exercise in futility and elected instead to simply ignore these artillery exercises.

Emboldened, Pyongyang escalated. RoK military intelligence noticed increased activities in the DPRK naval (mainly submarine) base in Cape Bipagot, South Hwanghae Province. The Bipagot submarine base is around 50mile/80km from Baengnyeong Island. It is home for several 325-ton Sang-O-class medium submarines and 130-ton Yeon-O-class midget submarines — both of which are optimized for the support of special operations and irregular naval warfare — as well as a detachment of the 17th Sniper Corps.

Most intriguing were submarine exercises, setting out on patrol while evading the RoK coastal radar. These exercises included the use of mother ships for cover and the shielding of mini-submarines behind bigger ones. By mid-March 2010, the DPRK submarine exercises became increasingly bolder and daring with the submarines getting closer to patrolling RoK combatants in effort to ascertain how quickly and at what distance they might be detected.

The DPRK Navy must have been very satisfied with their success. “Defensive measures are very difficult and limited,” acknowledged RoK Lt.-Gen. Park Jing-E after the sinking of the Cheonan. Once a DPRK submarine left port “it is very difficult to detect”. Therefore, Park concluded, “the most effective way to destroy the submarine is to destroy it when it’s identified at the port”. But this, of course, is politically impossible. RoK military intelligence would later acknowledge the limit of their advance knowledge. “We do not know whether the North observed the Cheonan in advance to attack but we believe that North Korean submarines must have undergone prior military drills, including firing a torpedo, in waters similar to those in which the South’s frigate was sunk,” noted Vice Admiral Hwang Won-Dong, who led the intelligence analysis unit researching the sinking of the Cheonan.

In two-to-three days preceding the sinking of the Cheonan, the RoK Navy recorded that “a few small submarines and a mother ship” left the Bipagot submarine base and disappeared. The “missing” submarines included at least two Sang-O-class medium submarines and two Yeon-O-class midget submarines. It is assumed the four submarines certain to have left port formed two identical detachments, each comprised of one Sang-O-class and one Yeon-O-class submarines. One of these detachments was to serve as a decoy, although the RoK and US Navies failed to locate these submarines as well. The second detachment delivered the strike. Although it would take a DPRK submarine between six and seven hours to reach Baengnyeong Island underwater, the RoK Navy doubts that the submarines made a direct run. The underwater currents are extremely fast in the area between Hwanghae Province and Baengnyeong Island. Moreover, this area is closely monitored by RoK Navy.

Hence, investigators are now convinced that the attack pair set out to sea shielded by the mother ship. At a certain point, they shut down their engines and drifted silently into waters near Baengnyeong Island. They rested on the seabed until detecting the incoming RoK Navy patrol of two corvettes, the Cheonan and the Sokcho. Vice Admiral Hwang Won-Dong believes that the Yeon-O-class submarine moved in to attack the closest corvette — the Cheonan — with a torpedo from relatively close range.

On March 26, 2010, at around 9:20pm, a sentry on the shore of Baengnyeong Island reported seeing a 100-meter-high “pillar of white flash” lasting two to three seconds. Other witnesses — both troops and fishermen — reported they heard a near-simultaneous explosion once or twice. Concurrently, the Sang-O-class submarine made itself noticeable for a brief moment, apparently firing chaff into the air not far from the Sokcho. Consequently, rather than react to the explosion and check if there was need for a rescue effort, the Sokcho steamed north and blasted something on its radar, the cloud of chaff. This diversion enabled the Yeon-O-class submarine to disengage safely. The Cheonan broke in two and sank shortly afterwards. Forty six crew members died and 58 were rescued.

Indeed, the RoK Navy confirmed that the two DPRK submarines and mother ship which had left the Bipagot submarine base two to three days before the attack of the Cheonan had returned to base safely two to three days after the attack. 

In the coming weeks, the RoK pulled the two parts of the Cheonan out of the West Sea and subjected them to a thorough study. The RoK also conducted a thorough dranging of the surrounding sea bottom. The results of the RoK’s investigation were conclusive. The RoK civilian and military investigation team concluded that a “non-contact external explosion” or a “close-range external explosion” led the Cheonan’s sinking. The investigation determined that “there was an underwater explosion outside the ship, bottom left side of the gas turbine room in the bow, and proceeded from the bottom left side to the top right side of the ship.” The investigation concluded further that “a strong underwater explosion generated by the detonation of a torpedo below and to the left of the gas turbine room, followed by a strong bubble-jet effect caused the Cheonan to split apart and sink.”

“Normally when a torpedo explodes underwater near a vessel, shock waves followed by gas bubbles are created. This gas bubble contracts and expands putting great amount of pressure on a ship forcing it to bend up and down. Then the bubbles collapse to create a water jet that rises above the surface to form a column of water, subsequently causing the vessel to break apart. Evidence and testimony show that this was what happened. Investigation of the inside and outside of the ship shows that evidence of water pressure and bubble effects on the bottom of the hull, extreme pressure on the fin stabilizer, and wires cut with no traces of heat.”

Simply put, this type of explosion is associated with a torpedo strike from below; that is, from a nearby submarine.

The RoK investigation determined that the Cheonan was sunk by a 250 kg, mid-sized passive-acoustic sonar-tracking torpedo which exploded three meters below the corvette’s gas turbine room. The RoK investigators removed residue of high explosives from several parts of the wreckage and identified a specific type of RDX, a type of RDX identical to the high-explosives found inside an unexploded North Korean torpedo which was found on a South Korean beach seven years ago. The RoK Navy also recovered parts from the torpedo which sank the Cheonan, particularly propulsion motor with propellers and a steering section. According to Yoon Duk-Yong, co-head of the investigation team, these parts “perfectly match the schematics of the CHT-02D torpedo included in introductory brochures provided to foreign countries by North Korea for export purposes”.

A North Korean derivative of the Chinese-made Yu-3 type torpedo, the CHT-02D is a heavyweight passive-acoustic homing torpedo with a warhead of about 250 kilograms. The diameter of the CHT-02D is about 53 centimeters and its weight is 1.7 tons, well within the capabilities of the Yeon-O-class submarine. RoK intelligence obtained a sample of an export model of the CHT-02D and proved that certain etchings and parts’ serial numbers on both engine and propellor units are identical.

Throughout, Pyongyang was actively preparing for the possibility of retaliation by the RoK and the US.

The Pyongyang area command began mobilizing Local Reserve Forces, Young Red Guard and Worker and Peasant Red Guard around March 10, 2010. The first series of air-defense drills was conducted by March 13 and 28, 2010. It was hinted to the mobilized Pyongyang citizens that the exercises were conducted due to US and RoK maneuvers.

RoK intelligence debriefed a source from Pyongyang who belittled the importance of official excuses. “The purpose of this training was not explained by the authorities. In Pyongyang, at least once a quarter we have to join in with anti-aircraft training, so people just complain that it is hard to live with that strain, but accept it,” the source noted. The pace and intensity of these exercises markedly increased between March 28 and April 4. In the second round, the Municipal Committee of the WPK ran training sessions around Pyongyang involving the Local Reserve Forces and Worker and Peasant Red Guard. “The Local Reserve Forces took a train to a position at the camp of the Pyongyang anti-aircraft gun unit. Worker and Peasant Red Guards trained for emergency summonses to major defense facilities managed by the Civil Defense Bureau,” the source reported.

Moreover, all Pyongyang residents had to participate in daily emergency air-raid training during the same period: from March 28 to April 4, 2010. “In the offices of the People’s Safety Ministry and in private residences via the third broadcasting, a siren was blown, and residents of the people’s units and work places had to enter air-raid shelters or subway stations and stay there for an hour. The time the siren sounded was different every day, either on 10am, 2pm, or 7pm. During that evacuation training period, migration of Pyongyang residents was completely controlled and all the belongings of workers and enterprises had to be concealed,” the source added. Starting April 5, the frequency of air-raid drills was reduced to once every two or three days. These air-raid drills still continue.

Initially, the political reaction of the DPRK to the ship sinking was contradictory. The first official reaction by Pyongyang came only in mid-April 2010. In a statement issued by KCNA, Pyongyang warned Seoul to thoroughly investigate the accident rather than blame Pyongyang. “Failing to probe the cause of the sinking of the ship, the puppet military warmongers, right-wing conservative politicians and the group of other traitors in South Korea are now foolishly seeking to link the accident with the North at any cost,” the KCNA communiqué read. “Though the sunken large ship belongs to the South side, we have so far regarded the accident as a regretful accident that should not happen in the light of the fact that many missing persons and most of rescued members of the crew are fellow countrymen forced to live a tiresome life in the puppet army.”

On the other hand, internally, the KPA and Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) élite were virtually boasting about their achievement. For example, in mid-April 2010, an upper-rank KWP official commented to a diplomat that the DPRK’s military had recently taken “great revenge” on the RoK. The élite’s grapevine was full of rumors about “the sinking of a South Korean ship in recent days by the North Korean navy”. Consequently, as these rumors began to swirl around Pyongyang to such an extent that Party officials could no longer ignore them in the weekly political education sessions.

In late April 2010, a KWP official visiting Party members at a factory stated: “The heroic People’s Army recently took great revenge on the enemies, and South Korea is now shaking with fear of our independent military force.” There was no mention of the actual sinking of the Cheonan, however.

This was apparently a prepared statement issued by the highest political education authorities because as late as April 24, 2010, other KWP officials made similar statements. For example, on April 24, in the regular Saturday lecture for Party members from Onsung in North Hamkyung Province, the Secretary of the KWP cell announced: “Since our heroic Chosun People’s Army took revenge on the enemy, all South Chosun has been in fear of our defensive military ability.”

A participant told RoK intelligence that “The Secretary did not directly mention the South Korean ship sinking incident, but participants in the lecture were able to confirm that a rumor which had been circulating among the people really happened. The lecture was held to inspire Party members to take pride in and respect our military power on commemorating the founding day of the Chosun People’s Army, April 25th.” There is also widespread fear of a retaliatory war in the countryside. “Around 70 percent of residents know about that. Some talk about what we should do if a war happens, and others say that it would be better if a war were to break out,” a source from Shinuiju told RoK intelligence. “Even if cadres were to hear what people are talking about in whispers, they would not regulate them.”

As fears of US retaliation grew, Pyongyang launched a sophisticated active-measures campaign for foreign consumption. Unofficial and semi-official emissaries and experts associated with Pyongyang were dispatched to Tokyo, Seoul, and several world capitals important for Pyongyang. They conducted briefings for friendly politicians, media, and NGOs about the “real” analysis of the sinking of the Cheonan and delivered calming messages from Kim Jong-Il.

The gist of the North Korean campaign was to convince the engaged capitals there was neither a point nor an interest in confronting Pyongyang and that quietly appeasing Kim Jong-Il was the best way out given the threat of a nuclear crisis. The emissaries and experts also provided a mix of selective information and disinformation to help the politicians they engage come up with credible excuses for following the appeasement policies toward Pyongyang. In this drive, most important was the campaign orchestrated particularly in and from Japan by Kim Myong-Chol, Kim Jong-Il’s long-time confidant.

In early May 2010, Kim Myong-Chol started floating the message that the Cheoan was most likely the victim of an accidental sinking by the US Navy which used a US-made torpedo. “So far,” Kim Myong-Chol stressed, “no hard evidence has been produced linking North Korea to the disaster. However, this has not stopped media and experts from holding the North responsible.”

He stressed that there was no reason for the DPRK to avenge the naval confrontation of November 2009. Kim Myong-Chol noted that a KPA Navy senior officer, Kim Gwang-Il, stated that in this encounter “a warship of our navy single-handedly faced up to several enemy warships, to guard the NLL” and “inflicted merciless blows on them in a show of the might of the heroic Korean People’s Army Navy.”

Significantly, Kim Myong-Chol was most explicit in denying DPRK involvement. “Is it possible that North Korea carried out the daring act of torpedoing a South Korean corvette participating in a US-South Korean war exercise? The answer is a categorical no. The circumstantial evidence is quite revealing, showing who is the more likely culprit.” Instead, he suggested that the US Navy was a possible culprit. There was a US Navy flotilla that included four Aegis-equipped ships conducting anti-submarine exercises against US and RoK submarines in the area.

Hence, Kim Myong-Chol’s argued, “friendly fire was the most likely cause of the naval disaster. ... A torpedo could have been launched from any of the American or South Korean warships or warplanes taking part in the Foal Eagle exercise alongside the hapless Cheonan.” Kim Myong-Chol concluded with a practical pragmatic advice for Seoul to avoid further aggravation of the situation. “The best solution is for the South Korean government team investigating the ship disaster to find an old mine responsible. It is easy to falsely accuse North Korea, but public pressure will mount for military reprisals against North Korea, which will promptly react by turning Seoul into a sea of fire in less than five minutes. North Korea would not flinch from using nuclear arms in the event of US involvement,” Kim Myong-Chol said.

By late May 2010, however, when the technical specifics of the North Korean torpedo that sank the Cheonan became known, the message spread by Kim Myong-Chol and other emissaries of the DPRK became more sinister and explicit. They harshly challenged the veracity of Seoul’s “finalized forensic report” because it was laced with “false findings pointing a finger at North Korea.” Kim Myong-Chol argued that the investigation was “too clumsy to be a compelling case” because all the evidence presented “could have been deliberately placed there by the true culprit to impute responsibility.” As an alternative, they wove a yarn of joint US-RoK conspiracy gone awry. Kim Myong-Chol reminded that because of the US heavy-handed negotiations policy, “gone once and for all is the only small opportunity for North Korea to agree to return to the table for nuclear talks and renounce its nuclear arsenal.” Therefore, it became imperative for the US to increase pressure on the DPRK through provocations and conspiracies to return to six-party talks and compromise.

Several unofficial and semi-official emissaries and experts went so far as to claim that the Cheonan was the victim of an intentional US provocation involving the use of a foreign-made torpedo in order to implicate Pyongyang and start a crisis in order to elicit additional concessions. Kim Myong-Chol himself dodged this accusation but stressed that North Korean compromise will not happen. “The Korean People’s Army has been put on combat readiness. Supreme Commander Kim Jong-Il is one click away from turning Seoul, Tokyo, and New York into a sea of fire with a fleet of nuclear-tipped North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles.” At the same time, Kim Myong-Chol acknowledged that it might be too late for Washington and Seoul to adopt the way out he had recommended in early May.

Because of the public accusations of North Korea, Kim Myong-Chol explained, there emerged “the urgent need to keep secret from the public that the tragic sinking of the corvette was a result of inadvertent friendly fire by a US nuclear submarine or an Aegis ship or any other naval ship. Public knowledge of US friendly fire would generate a destructive bubble-jet effect of launching waves of anti-Americanism and attendant objections to US bases in South Korea, Japan and the rest of Asia, landing Obama and Lee in trouble.” Hence, crisis and threat of war would only be exacerbated, just as Washington originally desired (in Pyongyang’s view).

Indeed, the message from Pyongyang was increasingly that of an impending war. “We consider the current situation as a state of war and will deal with it accordingly,” KCNA announced on May 21, 2010. Should Seoul continue threatening to retaliate, Pyongyang warned, “we will consider terminating inter-Korean relations, breaking the non-aggression pact with South Korea, and scrapping all existing North-South economic cooperation.” The DPRK also demanded that KPA experts be allowed to conduct independent examination of the proof offered by the RoK. “We warn our traitors [South Korea] that they will have to present definitive proof that is suspicion-free. In response to any type of punitive measure, we will retaliate, even with an all-out war.”

Pyongyang, by late May 2010, was clearly taking the specter of war seriously. On May 23, 2010, the DPRK activated the war-time information dissemination system based on a cable radio network reaching to most households across North Korea, particularly in the cities. The activation was in the form of a broadcast statement read by O Kuk-Yol himself. “The US and South Korea are committing an act of madness connecting North Korea with the sinking of the Cheonan ship and pledging revenge,” O Kuk-Yol stated. “This has been fabricated and plotted by the US and South Korea to isolate and kill North Korea by pressure.” The South Korean Navy was increasingly trespassing the North Korean territorial waters in pursuit of a “deliberate provocation aimed to spark off another military conflict,” O Kuk-Yol warned. Meanwhile, the KPA’s propaganda organs for officers also warned of an imminent war. “We do not hope for war, but if South Korea, with the US and Japan on its back, tries to attack us, Kim Jong-Il has ordered us to finish the task of unification left undone during the [Korean] War,” a KPA communiqué said.

On May 25, 2010, Pyongyang formally accused Seoul and Washington of provoking a crisis and war on the Korean Peninsula through the fabrication of evidence concerning the sinking of the Cheonan. “This is a deliberate provocation aimed to spark off another military conflict in the West Sea of Korea and thus push to a war phase the present North-South relations that reached the lowest ebb,” KCNA announced. If the maritime intrusions continued, the North “will put into force practical military measures to defend its waters ... and the South side will be held fully accountable for all the ensuing consequences.” Pyongyang reiterated that Seoul “faked evidence” solely in order to ignite conflict. “The service-persons and members of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards ... are determined to strongly react to their gangster-like provocation,” KCNA asserted.

Later on May 25, 2010, Pyongyang formally announced a new era of inter-Korean relations as a result of Seoul’s mounting provocation and hostility:

“The Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, accordingly, formally declares that from now on it will put into force the resolute measures to totally freeze the inter-Korean relations, totally abrogate the agreement on non-aggression between the North and the South and completely halt the inter-Korean cooperation.   

“In this connection, the following measures will be taken at the first phase:

“1. All relations with the puppet authorities will be severed.

“2. There will be neither dialogue nor contact between the authorities during [RoK President] Lee Myung-Bak’s tenure of office.

“3. The work of the Panmunjom Red Cross liaison representatives will be completely suspended.

“4. All communication links between the North and the South will be cut off.


“5. The Consultative Office for North-South Economic Cooperation in the Kaesong Industrial Zone will be frozen and dismantled and all the personnel concerned of the South side will be expelled without delay.

“6. We will start all-out counterattack against the puppet group’s ‘psychological warfare against the North.’

“7. The passage of South Korean ships and airliners through the territorial waters and air of our side will be totally banned.

“8. All the issues arising in the inter-Korean relations will be handled under a wartime law.

“There is no need to show any mercy or patience for such confrontation maniacs, sycophants and traitors and wicked warmongers as the Lee Myung-Bak group.”

On May 28, 2010, the DPRK’s National Defense Commission formally accused the RoK of faking the sinking of the Cheonan and of intentionally pushing Korean Peninsula to “the brink of war” which the DPRK was eager to prevent but equally determined to win. This threat was delivered in a highly irregular press briefing in Pyongyang that was opened to foreign diplomats and covered by the DPRK’s media organs. The briefing was conducted by Maj.-Gen. Pak Rim-Su, the Director of the Department of Policy at the National Defense Commission. “The South Korean puppet regime’s faked sinking of the Cheonan has created a very serious situation on the Korean Peninsula, pushing it towards the brink of war,” Maj.-Gen. Pak Rim-Su stated. “These anti-North Korean confrontations are an open declaration of war against us and an extraordinarily criminal act that pushes inter-Korean relations into a state of war.” Pak Rim-Su warned that Seoul’s initial reactions, such as the resumption of psychological operations near the DMZ, were “sharpening possibilities for one-on-one confrontation at an unprecedented speed”.

Politically, Seoul has been on the defensive from the very beginning. Rhetoric notwithstanding, Seoul was cognizant that retaliation and revenge were out of question. Seoul was also constrained by the international posture imposed by Washington.

“Over the years it has become an axiom of the North Korea story that for all the belligerent rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang, that a return to full-scale war is impossible,” explained a senior British official. Hence, Seoul’s announcement that there was full US backing for the RoK’s decision to no longer be passive in defending against DPRK incursions on land, sea, and air was essentially hollow.

Seoul knew that while military retaliation was technically feasible: the dread of an irrational reaction by the DPRK would have a highly negative impact on the RoK’s own international situation and, consequently, the economy. Hence Seoul found itself in a classic “lose-lose situation”: Seoul was going to be blamed for both the unavoidable consequences of blaming Pyongyang and for weakness for not doing anything about it.

The plight of Seoul was severely aggravated by the policies adopted by the Obama White House.

The US is bound by treaty obligation and therefore had to promise retaliation once the North Korean culpability was proven beyond doubt. Internally, the US intelligence community concurred with the South Korean conclusions including the attribution of direct responsibility to Kim Jong-Il.

By mid-May 2010, the accepted position of US intelligence was that Kim Jong-Il ordered the sinking of the Cheonan to help the succession of Kim Jong-Un. “We can’t say it is established fact,” explained a senior intelligence official. “But there is very little doubt, based on what we know about the current state of the North Korean leadership and the military.” Little wonder that the Obama White House was taken aback by Seoul’s decision to present publicly the stark findings of the investigation of the sinking of the Cheonan and outrightly blame Pyongyang.

The clarity of the finding and the internal position of the US intelligence community confronted the Obama White House with a huge quandary.

Initially, Washington decided on buying time through foot-dragging. Pres. Obama called Pres. Lee and demanded that Seoul did nothing until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Seoul (after a day in Tokyo and a week-long stay in the Shanghai Expo, thus demonstrating the real urgency for Washington).

By this time, the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Intelligence community had formulated an appeasement policy for the Obama White House.

The US policy is now — as a result — that the only way to break the vicious cycle of a slide to war is to negotiate directly with Kim Jong-Il. Obama’s inner-circle is now worried that the US might have painted itself into a corner by endorsing Seoul’s rhetoric and accusations. The sole focus of the US policy should therefore be defusing the crisis before it becomes unmanageable. The Obama White House was advised in no uncertain terms that the assumption that economic sanctions or muscle-flexing would cause Pyongyang to back down was “utterly unrealistic”. On the contrary, the “current heated atmosphere” is already sufficient to trigger a wider escalation by a hyper Pyongyang. The earlier warnings by the US intelligence community of new missile tests, another nuclear test, or the bolstering the North Korean nuclear arsenal have been repeated.

Little wonder that on instruction from Washington, the US-dominated UN Command announced its own investigation into the responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan.

This investigation would start from scratch even though US Government and USFK experts were part of the South Korean investigation and were given access to virtually all the material available to Seoul. Indeed, this investigation was intended only to waste time and avoid the need to do something. For example, State Department announced the US would not even put North Korea back on the terror list until all the facts surrounding the sinking of the Cheonan were verified. “With respect to ... the state-sponsor of terrorism list, the United States will apply the law as the facts warrant,” Sec. of State Clinton said in Beijing. “The legislation ... sets out specific criteria for the Secretary of State to base a determination... If the evidence warrants, the Department of State will take action.”

Moreover, Washington raised the demand with Seoul that no action be taken until after authorization by the UNSC where the PRC would most likely veto any harsh condemnation. However, Beijing has so far adamantly refused to condemn or criticize Pyongyang. “No amount of evidence would be enough to persuade [the PRC] to condemn North Korea,” acknowledged a senior US official.

Simply put, the Obama White House’s insistence on getting a UNSC endorsement is actually a ploy to avoid having to do anything in pursuant of the US-RoK treaties. Both Beijing and Pyongyang are cognizant of the real position of the Obama White House. Hence, on May 28, 2010, Pyongyang raised the ante once again. A communiqué carried by KCNA warned that the DPRK would employ “ultra-strong countermeasures” if the RoK dared to refer the sinking of the Cheonan to the UNSC. PRC officials at the UN warned that these “ultra-strong countermeasures” could mean “a test-firing of a long-range ballistic missile or a [DPRK’s] third nuclear test.”

By the end of May 2010, Kim Jong-Il was so far winning the Cheonan crisis he had instigated.

At the insistence of the US, the focus has shifted from retaliation for an unprovoked act of war — sinking of Cheonan — to preventing a new Korean war as a result of Pyongyang’s belligerency and righteous indignation. Appeasing Kim Jong-Il and reaching a new compromise with the DPRK are the primary objectives of the US-led effort to defuse the crisis.

Rather than pressure the culprit, the Obama White House is exerting immense pressure on the main US regional allies — the RoK and Japan — to exercise self-restraint and avoid needless aggravation of the situation.

As far as the Obama White House is concerned, the idea of punitive undertakings against the DPRK is indeed inconceivable. US appeasement rules the day, and the Obama White House is seeking new inducements for both the PRC and the DPRK in order to resume moribund six-party talks, which have, despite years of effort, yielded no progress.

Eventually, such a compromise will be found and hold through until the next North Korean provocation.

Analysis by Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.

(c) 2010 International Strategic Studies Association, StrategicStudies.org

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  • Anonymous on May 31 2010 said:
    Where is the evidence of a torpedo hit? I've seen or read nothing to convince me that this was a torpedo. And,if it is true, then the United States has had a curiously muted response to what would inarguably be an act of war.

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