Race to Judge, Rush to Act

The Sinking of the Cheonan and the Politics of National Insecurity

Author: Jae-Jung Suh


On 26 March 2010, the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy corvette Cheonan broke in half and sank near Baekryong-do Island off the coast of North Korea. Forty-six sailors lost their lives. Mysterious as the cause of the incident is, the ROK government's responses – the Navy's failure to communicate through the chain of command, the military's incompetence in rescue and salvage operations, the Ministry of National Defense's efforts to cover up basic facts, and the government's rush to blame North Korea as the culprit and take punitive measures – all added confusion and heightened already high tensions on the peninsula. This article argues that the ROK government's report failed to substantiate its claim that North Korea attacked and sank the ship. Moreover, the author shows, its claim was based on internally inconsistent logic and likely fabricated data. The government's rash, and unsubstantiated, judgment was accompanied by saber-rattling against the North and scare tactics intended to silence domestic critics immediately before local government elections. Amidst the heightened tension caused by the incident, the U.S. administration succeeded in pressuring the Japanese prime minister Hatoyama to cave in to its demand to keep the Futenma base within Okinawa. Also it agreed to postpone the transfer of the wartime command control over the Korean military to the ROK until 2015. The United States, economically wounded by the financial crisis of 2008, found the heightened state of insecurity created by the Cheonan incident an opportune excuse to strengthen its allies and its military, if not political, influence in Northeast Asia, although its success may prove Pyrrhic in the long run.

Regions: East Asia
Countries: Korea

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September 2010
© E.D. Starin