North Korea Leadership Watch

Research and Analysis on the DPRK Leadership

Official Word on the Cheonan

Yoon Duk-yong (Photo: Yonhap)

The ROK’s international investigation team has issued its official finding that the March 2010 sinking of the Cheonan was caused by a North Korean torpedo.  Yoon Duk-yong said the torpedo was likely fired from DPRK naval vessels: “We confirmed that a few small submarines and a mother ship supporting them left a North Korean naval base in the West Sea 2-3 days prior to the attack and returned to port 2-3 days after the attack.”  Northeast Asia Matters has a fantastic summary on the Cheonan with background on previous inter-Korean scrapes, and the rhetoric employed by the North.

Yonhap’s Kim Deok-hyun reports:

The underwater explosion occurred about three meters left of the center of the South Korean warship, Yoon said, confirming a so-called “bubble jet effect” theory that a powerful water pillar created when the torpedo exploded sank the ship.

Yoon said the North Korean CHT-025 torpedo, with a net explosive weight of some 250 kilograms, was the weapon that sank the ship.

The finding is expected to seriously exacerbate already troubled relations between the two Koreas. Efforts to reopen long-stalled international talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs are also expected to suffer in the wake of the finding.

South Korea has repeatedly vowed to deal sternly with whoever is found responsible. Possible options Seoul has been contemplating include referring the case to the U.N. Security Council to punish Pyongyang.

Lee Chi-dong writes on the official Lee government response:

“(We) will take resolute countermeasures against North Korea and make it admit its wrongdoings through strong international cooperation and return to the international community as a responsible member,” Lee told Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in phone talks, according to Lee’s office, Cheong Wa Dae.

Lee’s comments came as an international team of investigators found that the 1,200-ton patrol ship Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine on March 26 in waters near the western border with the communist nation. Forty-six sailors were killed.

Two dozen experts from Australia, the U.S., Britain and Sweden took part in the weeks-long probe to ensure accuracy and impartiality of the investigation.

“It was clearly revealed through the international investigation team’s scientific and objective investigation that the Cheonan incident was North Korea’s military provocation,” Lee said.

He pointed out the secretive communist regime’s past record of denying its military provocations and terrorist attacks against the South.

But such a practice will not be allowed this time, Lee stressed, citing material evidence that he said “no country and no one can refute.”

In response, the Australian leader promised full support for Seoul’s handling of the case, according to Cheong Wa Dae.

It added Lee will assemble an emergency meeting of his top security advisers on Friday to discuss countermeasures.

“President Lee plans to convene a National Security Council (NSC) meeting in the morning on May 21 for discussions on next steps,” Cheong Wa Dae said.

Yoon Duk-yong, co-head of the investigation team, explains the propulsion section of the North Korean torpedo that sank a South Korean warship during a news conference at the Defense Ministry on Thursday. Bottom: The North Korean-made CHT-02D torpedo, the type believed by the multinational investigation team to have attacked the South Korean warship Cheonan. (Photo: Ahn Hoon, Korea Herald/Yonhap_

The DPRK’s pre-emptive reply came from the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, saying the ROK government was “making fiction” in its investigation:

The smear campaign launched by the puppet group against the DPRK in the wake of the sinking of its warship reached the height of its confrontation and war moves.

When the above-said accident occurred, the group regarded it as a golden opportunity for pushing the north-south relations to a catastrophe. Making the fiction that the accident “was caused by the north” a fait accompli from its beginning, the group cried out for “countermeasure” and “retaliation”. It even went the lengths of talking about not ruling out a war.

The puppet group is seriously mistaken if it thinks it can weather crisis and prove successful in the upcoming “elections to local self-governing bodies” by misleading the public opinion through such trite campaign as straining the situation and bedeviling the inter-Korean relations.

Song Sang-ho writes on the naval vessels involved, in the Korea Herald:

The team judges that a Yeono-class midget submarine fired the torpedo.

It has found that a few small submarines and a mother ship supporting them left a North Korean naval base in the West Sea two to three days prior to the attack and returned to their port two to three days after the attack.

“We also confirmed that all submarines from neighboring countries were either in or near their respective home bases at the time of the incident. This is confirmed by the multinational combined intelligence task force comprised of five states including the U.S., Australia, Canada and the U.K.,” Yoon said.

According to the intelligence team, the North has a fleet of some 70 submarines including 20 1,800-ton Romeo-class submarines, 40 3,000-ton Sango-class submarines and 10 midget submarines, including 130-ton Yeono-class submarines.

The investigation team believes that the submarine took a detour to launch an attack in the West Sea.

“It is presumed that the submarine took a detour on the outskirts of the West Sea. For the fatal attack, it appears that the North identified its target at night and mounted the attack at close range,” said Air Force Lieutenant Gen. Hwang Won-dong who headed the investigation team’s intelligence analysis section.

“After the provocation, the submarine appears to have swiftly moved away from the scene and returned (to its home port) using the same infiltration route.”

The Yeono-class submarine, which the North has built for export purposes, is equipped with high-end military devices and has a special structure for stealthy operations, Hwang said.

Hwang added that the North may have previously conducted an exercise in its waters in preparation for the torpedo attack.

The North possesses a variety of torpedoes including straight-running, acoustic and wake homing torpedoes with a net explosive weight of some 200-300 kilograms, according to the intelligence team.

Yoo Jee-ho reports in JoongAng Ilbo on the DPRK reaction:

Condemning the conclusion by an international team of experts that a North Korean torpedo attacked the warship Cheonan as “fabricated,” the communst country’s powerful National Defense Commission said today it would send a team of inspectors to get a first-hand look at evidence.

In a spokesman statement, the commission threatened to take “strong measures, including an all-out war,” if South Korea imposes any sanctions on North Korea.

The North Korean statement called the South Korean attempt to link the Cheonan sinking to North Korea “foolish.”

Late last night, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said that the “South Korean puppet group” is using the sinking as a “golden opportunity for pushing North-South relations to a catastrophe.”

Shin Hae-in writes in Korea Herald that the Cheonan sinking, and North Korea in general, have become elections issues in the ROK

Regardless of the rival parties’ stance on the matter, the renewed inter-Korean tension will wield strong influence on swing voters and unite the right-wing vote, pundits say.

“The investigation results will likely emerge as a key issue, pushing aside all other factors ahead of the elections,” said Lee Chul-hee of the Korea Society Opinion Institute. “The increased attention on national security could drive younger voters away from polls while uniting the older, right-wing voters – the exact effect the ruling party is hoping for.”

Professor Kim Hyung-joon of Myungji University agreed.

“Calls for stronger national security will naturally unite the conservative voters,” he said. “Voters will not be able to ignore this matter in the elections as the North Korean issue has always been directly related to the country’s economy.”

Backing the presumptions, recent polls show the number of floating voters has decreased rapidly this week, with elderly conservative voters increasingly expressing their favoritism toward the ruling party candidates.

The fact that many of the ruling party candidates are incumbent district chiefs vying for a second or third term — such as the case in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi — is another advantageous factor for the GNP, professor Kim said.

“During unstable and uncertain times, people do not want too many changes to take place. The opposition party will definitely find it harder to take the seats from the ruling party,” he said.

Chosun Ilbo reports on the upcoming Seoul arrival of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on 26 May (Wednesday):

The focus of her visit is the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing starting next Monday. She was originally scheduled only to attend the bilateral meeting, but her itinerary changed as an investigation into the March 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan concluded that it was caused by a North Korean torpedo attack.

Clinton visits Seoul next Wednesday to send a warning to Pyongyang and emphasize the firmness of the Seoul-Washington alliance. She is to meet President Lee Myung-bak to convey a message from his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama, and reaffirm the unchanging American determination to defend the South in a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan.

Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley on Tuesday said Clinton will discuss the repercussions of the findings of the Cheonan investigation on Northeast Asia. She will focus on ways for Seoul and Washington to deal with North Korea in the international community including the UN. Since she is to visit Seoul again in July for the South Korea-U.S. foreign and defense ministers’ meeting, she flies back home the same day.

But her first destination is Tokyo, where she arrives on Friday. Clinton will discuss differences of opinion over relocating the U.S. Marine’s Futenma airbase on Okinawa that have soured relations between the two sides. She flies to Shanghai Friday evening and stays there until Sunday before moving to Beijing for the U.S.-China dialogue.

Jung Sung-ki has a pair of reports in Korea Times that focus on the evidence implicating the DPRK, and the official announcement of the investigation:

The sub was believed to have sneaked through international waters into the West Sea two or three days before the attack, according to the group.

It said the torpedo, with an explosive weight of about 250 kilograms, exploded 3 meters under the gas turbine area of the 1,200-ton ship.

The group provided what it called decisive evidence to prove North Korea’s involvement in the tragedy that claimed the lives of 46 sailors.

It displayed parts of the propulsion system of the torpedo collected from the site of the sinking and said the remains matched in size and shape the specifications on a blueprint of a North Korean torpedo.

The blueprint was included in brochures of torpedoes provided to foreign countries for exports, it said.

Investigators also found markings in hangeul, which read “No. 1” in English, on the parts. They said the font was similar to that on a North Korean torpedo discovered by the South seven years ago.

“The Cheonan was split apart and went down due to a shockwave and bubble effect produced by an underwater torpedo explosion,” said Yoon Duk-yong, a professor emeritus at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Another KT piece by Park Si-soo writes on a kind of collective realization in the ROK that the DPRK may  more lethal than previously thought.  As the poet sang, “You tamed the lion in my cage, but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart.”:

Yet, the memory of gunfire exchanges and devastated territory during the war is long gone for most South Koreans, particularly the younger generations, due to few major inter-Korean clashes over the past five decades, analysts say.

Even when small-scale yet bloody clashes took place in 1999 and 2002 between South and North patrol boats that claimed dozens of lives, most South Koreans maintained the attitude it was none of their business.

In an extreme case, the whole world was shocked when Pyeongyang conducted an unexpected underground nuclear bomb test in 2006, while South Korea was immune from the shockwave. A news report described the atmosphere of the country as “unusually calm” with no sign of a buying spree of necessities in preparation for probable conflict.

In April last year, the North launched several middle-range missiles into the West Sea in an attempt to raise tensions, but the South Korean stock index showed a moderate rise the next day.

“Long-lasting peace has made people numb to North Korean threats,” said Choi Myung-sang, a former Air Force general and currently a professor at Inha University in Incheon. “It seems that people don’t believe the verbal provocations of the North could bring about a physical attack.”

Such an unchallenged insensibility to North Korean threats has led to younger generations having the wrong idea of who the most dangerous state or “main enemy” of South Korea is, Choi said.

Mark Ladler writes in the New York Times of the diplo “storm brewing” now that the investigation’s findings have been announced:

For weeks after the sinking of the Cheonan, China urged caution in pointing fingers at North Korea, even though the evidence pointed strongly in that direction. On Wednesday, South Korea briefed Chinese diplomats, as well as those of other countries, about its findings.

“China has always tried to avoid making choices between North and South Korea, but an incident like this doesn’t allow that,” said Victor Cha, a former Bush administration official, responsible for North Korean policy, who now teaches at Georgetown University. “They have to choose.”

For the United States, the calculus is also complicated. The Obama administration just won China’s backing for a fourth round of United Nations sanctions against Iran related to its nuclear program. That, some analysts said, was the administration’s main strategic priority at this point.

Still, the United States has been deeply involved in the South’s investigation of the sinking. It sent a team from the Navy’s Pacific Command to take part in the search for clues, officials said, headed by an expert in submarine escape and rescue, Rear Adm. Thomas J. Eccles.

Australia, Canada, Britain and Sweden also took part in the investigation and will endorse its conclusions, officials said. South Korea, the officials said, wanted to have an international team so it would be harder for the North to dismiss the inquiry as politically motivated.

South Korea is weighing other measures against North Korea, which could include cutting imports of raw materials from the North. Those shipments have already been constricted since the North closed several North-South joint-venture companies north of the border.

South Korea could also undertake naval exercises in its coastal waters as a form of muscle-flexing, Mr. Cha said, perhaps in cooperation with the United States, focusing on antisubmarine warfare.

But the world’s leverage over North Korea is extremely limited, analysts said. The North has little trade with its neighbors, aside from China. It no longer admits United Nations inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities and announced in 2003 that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a move rejected by the United Nations.

John Glionna and Ju-min Park report in the LA Times:

Analysts predict that the cold war between North and South is about to get a lot colder.

“While a military war is less likely, I think an all-out economic war is certain,” said Ahn Yin-hay, an international studies professor at Korea University in Seoul. “Relations between North and South will reach a stalemate. The U.S. may even put North Korea on its terrorist list again. But all this means that relations between the U.S. and South Korea with be strengthened.”

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has vowed to take “stern action,” including severing most or all economic aid to the North. Lee called an emergency security meeting for Friday, pledging to augment naval forces and sensors along the disputed maritime boundary between North and South where the sinking occurred.

South Korea said it would also ask the U.N. Security Council to issue a strong rebuke and impose financial penalties against Pyongyang.

Still, there remains no worldwide consensus on how or even whether to punish North Korea, with China seemingly unwilling to fully commit to sanctions.

Cui Tiankai, China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, on Thursday called the Cheonan sinking “unfortunate,” but stopped short of backing Seoul in the dispute. He instead reiterated the need to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula.

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