South Korea: The story of ROKS Cheonan -- repression, lies and half truths

The recovered remains of the sunken ROKS Cheonan warship.

By Roddy Quines

September 1, 2010 -- It has often been said that "the first casualty when war comes is truth". The latest string of lies and half truths on the Korean peninsula have set the stage for the reheating of old tensions between North Korea and South Korea. The two Koreas have been at war for the last 60 years, with only a ceasefire and a 250-kilometre “no man’s land” known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) holding the fragile peace.

The sinking of the South Korean warship ROKS Cheonan in the Yellow Sea on March 26, 2010, was a tragedy, in which 46 South Korean seafarers lost their lives. In the aftermath of the sinking many members of the South Korean military quickly dismissed the idea that North Korea was behind the sinking. Former navy chief of staff Admiral Song Young-moo commented on March 29, "Some people are pointing the finger at North Korea, but anyone with knowledge about the waters where the shipwreck occurred would not draw that conclusion so easily".[1] Furthermore, the South Korean marines who were guarding the Western Sea at the time of the incident said they saw no sign of any North Korean vessels. Leading defence ministry officials then immediately pointed out that no North Korean submarines were detected in the area at the time of the incident. As defence ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae highlighted on April 2: "With regard to this case, no particular activities by North Korean submarines or semi-submarines (moving southward before the sinking) have been verified. I am saying again that there were no activities that could be directly linked to (the sinking of the ship)”.[2]

However by May 20, just 13 days before local elections, the governing conservative Grand National Party led by President Lee Myung Bak managed to turn things around and place all the blame on North Korea for the attack. North Korea, however, denies involvement in the incident and calls it “a fabrication and charade orchestrated by the South Korean puppet authorities”.[3] The Pyongyang government has pleaded with South Korea to allow it to send its own investigation team to examine the evidence so that North Korea and South Korea can collaborate in finding the truth behind the incident, however the Lee administration in the south has strongly and repeatedly refused the offer.

South Korean opinion is divided over the issue and many people suspect the government of abusing the incident for political gain.[4] To give an example of the thoughts of an average South Korean I cite the opinion given to a local newspaper by Sungsoo Ji, a teacher from Masan:
“To be honest, I'm not sure I trust the information given to us about the Cheonan sinking. It could be a trick because it's election period at the moment, so it could be some kind of strategy.”[5]

Lee Myung Bak JIGs around the issue

The Lee administration ordered an official investigation to be conducted based on "expert" assessments of the incident. This investigation is officially called the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group report, referred to as the JIG report.[6] The report describes the composition of the investigation team as follows:

“25 experts from 10 top Korean expert agencies, 22 military experts, 3 experts recommended by the National Assembly, and 24 foreign experts constituting 4 support teams from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Sweden. The JIG is composed of four teams -- Scientific Investigation Team, Explosive Analysis Team, Ship Structure Management Team, and Intelligence Analysis Team.”[7]

On May 20 the leaders of the JIG investigation team released to the public its conclusion that the Cheonan was sunk by a North Korean torpedo. As the official report states:

“We have reached the clear conclusion that ROKS Cheonan was sunk as the result of an external underwater explosion caused by a torpedo made in North Korea. The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation.”[8]

Immediately following the release of the JIG report the White House praised the investigation and its conclusion. On May 21 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the report as "a thorough and comprehensive scientific examination, and the United States and other international observers were deeply engaged".[9] However the report was plagued with factual errors and inconsistencies, hence the South Korean people and opposition parties are not buying into the findings. Leading South Korean NGOs, religious leaders, opposition political parties and newspapers are also calling for a reinvestigation of the causes of the sinking. As was reported by Seunghan Lee in the opinion section of the South Korean daily newspaper the Hankyoreh on August 5:

“Opinions remain divided over the cause of the sinking of the Cheonan... so why have we so far been unable to determine the truth about the sinking? The reason is that the South Korean government is concealing the relevant information.”[10]

The South Korean council of churches also issued a statement on May 31 pleading with the Lee administration to reconsider its handling of the situation, reopen the investigation, end the repression against those who question the official findings and make steps towards a peaceful resolution of the matter:

“There are still raising questions in relation to the cause of the sinking of the Cheonan and we see those who raised questions and have different opinion are treating and oppressed with laws. Taking into account on that strong national security is based on people's trust rather than punishment, government should open the related material and investigation study”.[11]

Leading South Korean human rights NGO, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, released a 27-page statement calling for a reinvestigation of the sinking. This statement was sent to the UN Security Council and circulated among its 15 members. Within the statement it is asserted that:

"[a] bipartisan investigation must be conducted by the National Parliament members, not an investigation team under control of the military who had monopolized and censored the information regarding the Cheonan incident".[12]

On July 5 parliamentary representatives of the major South Korean opposition parties submitted a request signed by 93 members of parliament for a reinvestigation of the Cheonan sinking.[13]

Was the investigation truly international?

The JIG report is referred to by the mainstream media as a comprehensive and international investigation. The New York Times praised South Korea for assembling “an international team of experts to determine the cause (of the sinking)”.[14]The Australian reported on May 28 that “a team of international investigators said last week that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine tore apart and sank a South Korean warship”.[15] The “international” aspect of the report is always given emphasis by the mainstream press, however, once the details are examined the extent to which this report can indeed be classified as “international” is dubious.

First, as noted above, the “international” investigators that took part were from only four countries -- 15 from the USA, three from Australia, two from the UK and four from Sweden (three of these governments also happen to be some of South Korea’s closest allies). There were also Canadian investigators involved, however the role they played is uncertain. A small group of carefully selected “experts” from only five countries (including South Korea) does not constitute a true international and independent investigation. There are 196 countries in the world, but why did this “international” investigation team only consist of experts from these five countries? Most notably, the South Korean government has chosen to not to include experts from Russia and China for the “international” panel.

A further point to be noted is that the exact role the “international” investigators played in proceedings is still unclear. Although the public version of the JIG report is only five pages long, the full and unreleased version JIG report is 400 pages long and divided into two separate and distinct sections -- the first section outlines how the Cheonan sank, while the second section presents the actual conclusion that it was a North Korean torpedo that sank the ship. What is of note is that the Swedish investigators are not included as contributors to the second statement findings.[16]

The conclusion of the public five-page public version of the JIG report reads as follows:

“In addition, the findings of the Multinational Combined Intelligence Task Force, comprised of 5 states including the US, Australia, Canada and the UK and operating since May 4th, are as follows...”

The above passage clearly shows that Sweden, the only country that can be classified as neutral, did not play any role in formulating the actual conclusion of the statement. The question therefore remains, why did Sweden not endorse the conclusion of the findings? At best this shows that the role of the international investigators was minimal and selective, at worse it hints towards something suspicious and dubious about the conclusions of the report.

Independent investigations slam JIG report

Despite the JIG conclusions that North Korea caused the sinking of the Cheonan, there has been scepticism among independent academic researchers claiming that the JIG report was not thorough enough and has failed to prove its conclusions beyond doubt.

An independent investigation led by Seunghan Lee from the University of Virginia and Dr Jae Jung Suh of John Hopkins University in the USA has come to the conclusion that the JIG report has some serious inconsistencies and many of its findings are not backed up with strong enough evidence. The JIG report bases its conclusions on three premises:

  • The blast was external.
  • The ship was hit by a torpedo.
  • The torpedo found at the bottom of the ocean was North Korean made.

Yet Lee and Suh maintain that the JIG report has failed to back up these three conclusions with solid evidence:

“The JIG presented its three “findings” without credible evidence, and its findings are self-contradictory and inconsistent with facts. All three are riddled with such serious flaws as to render the JIG’s conclusion unsustainable.”[17]

Lee and Suh state that the condition of the wrecked ship itself does not show the signs of being hit by an FA torpedo -- there is no sign of shock wave, even though a torpedo with 250 kilograms of explosives would have hit the ship with the pressure of 5000 psi. There are also no signs of a bubble effect on the ship. A torpedo explodes in the form of a hot gas bubble, however the ship shows no marks of such an impact. As Lee and Suh maintain:

“If the bottom of the ship was hit by a bubble, it should show a spherical concave deformation resembling the shape of a bubble, as the JIG’s own simulation suggests... but it does not.”[18]

An example of a major factual error is the assertion that there is North Korean writing on a torpedo found near the incident on. The torpedo found near the wreck has the Korean character "1" inscribed on it (which is pronounced in English as "il bun", meaning "No. 1"). The JIG report claims that writing on it that is identical to the writing found on a North Korean torpedo found in 2003 and the bulk of the JIG report's conclusions that the alleged torpedo came from North Korea rest on the "1" inscription. However the torpedo found in 2003 was in fact marked with “4 ” not “”, this is a big difference. South Korean military leaders themselves have admitted in a press release that the numbering system of the 2010 torpedo does not exactly match with the 2003 torpedo, as was reported in the South Korean newsgroup 공감코리: “the torpedo fragment from 2003 had a hand written writing 4".[19] According to Yang Moo Jin, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyongnam University, South Korea, it is not North Korean custom to label numbers with the letter (for example "1", "2", "3"), instead North Korea tends to indicate numbers using the word "" (such as 1, 2, 3 etc. -- this is pronounced as "ho" and can be translated as code in English, for example, code 1, code 2...).[20]

Furthermore, a chemical analysis by the JIG has revealed that the blue ink pigment used to inscribe 1 was “Solvent Blue 5”, a colour patented by the South Korean company Monami.[21] This has even led the South Korean ministry of defence to exclude the results of the ink analysis from the final report and concede that “it might be difficult to conclude that the ink is made in North Korea”.[22]

The inscription on the torpedo therefore, rather than proving North Korea's guilt, could either be from a past South Korean training drill or from a recent South Korean training drill error went wrong.

The infamous marking found on the alleged North Korean torpedo found on May 2010.

The North Korean torpedo recovered in 2003. Notice how the serial number is marked as “4” as compared to the 2010 torpedo which is inscribed with the numbering system.

The Russian navy sent its own naval expert team to South Korea to conduct an assessment of the evidence in an investigation from May 30 to June 7. The Russian report is very significant because it is the only investigation completely independent of the South Korean state (remember that the international members of the JIG were working under guidance and supervision of the South Korean government) allowed to closely examine the evidence first hand.

The Russian investigation team came up with a very different conclusion from the JIG report:

“1. It is confirmed that the cause of the sinking of the Cheonan is due to an explosion outside the ship and in the water.

“2. Before the sinking, the Cheonan ship touched the ocean floor on the right, a fishing net was entangled in the right propeller and the right line of the axle, which damaged the propeller wings.”

“Due to the entanglement of the fishing net with the right propeller and axle line, the Cheonan ship must have experienced restrictions in its speed and maneuvers.

“The Cheonan ship was traveling in a shallow area close to the coast and was entangled with the fishing net, and while it was moving to deeper water, the bottom of the ship might have touched an antenna of an ocean mine, which ignited the explosion of the mine.” [23]

The Russian team observed that the blades of the Cheonan's screws were damaged by hitting the bottom of the shallow ocean floor prior to the external explosion. This is also in line with the fact that Cheonan crew members used their mobile phones to report injured crew members at 21:12:03, almost 10 minutes earlier than the official 21:21:58 blast and sinking.

There is a big possibility that a sea mine caused the ship to sink. In the 1970s the whole area south of the Northern Limit Line was planted with underwater mines in order to stop North Korean ships from simply sailing south, and since then only 10% of the mines have been removed. The area where the Cheonan sank was especially ridden with mines that were planted to prevent North Korean vessels from landing on Baengyoeng Island. As the South Korean newspaper The Hankyoreh reports: “A retired high-ranking admiral ... has already testified that there are active mines deployed in the seas.”[24]

In regards to the alleged North Korean torpedo, the Russian team also confirmed that “the ink mark is inconsistent with the normal standards of marking (the location and the method of the mark)”.[25] The Russian team also added that the torpedo appears to have been submerged underwater for at least six months.[26]

Rollback of democratic gains of 1987

The Cheonan incident has provided the Lee regime and conservatives in the military with the perfect opportunity to tighten and intensify the rollback of South Korean democracy, which began upon Lee taking office in 2008. Dr Park Sun-won (a former member of the National Security Council) has been sued and Shin Sang-cheol (a civil member of the JIG itself who questioned the investigation's conclusions) has been arrested and indicted without detention for questioning the findings of the JIG report;[27] Shin, a former second lieutenant in the navy and a shipbuilder, was hounded for making the following statements: “As a member of the probe team, I made my conclusion based on my experience and knowledge... I think we marked the 1 . The magnified photo of the evidence showed that the marking was written on the rusted surface... If the North had marked it, the marking should have been written on a smooth surface.”[28]

Asian studies scholar Kim Yong-ok has been sued by conservative citizens for breach of the National Security Law (this is a law from the military dictatorship days that targets anyone involved in “seditious” activity). Ordinary internet users have also been faced with law suits from the military for voicing their opinions online and have been targeted by the various laws and control of online freedom of speech by the Lee administration.[29]

Since Lee’s taking office freedom of speech in South Korea has been under attack; this has led to much international concern including comments from the United Nations that people's rights to freedom of opinion and expression are being compromised: There has been a shrinking space for freedom of expression in the Republic of Korea, primarily due to new and more restrictive interpretations and application of existing laws”.[30] [31]


Former JIG team member Shin Sang-cheol has been arrested and indicted for questioning the conclusions of the findings.

Lee Myung Bak’s opportunism.

Blaming the Cheonan sinking on North Korea fits in perfectly with the hard-line policy of the conservative Lee Myung Bak administration which seeks to defect from the previous "sunshine policy" of peaceful co-existence of previous liberal presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-Hyun. Unlike the policies of previous liberal regimes, the Lee administration and the Grand National Party have only one final goal in regards to North Korea -- regime change. President Lee was a strong supporter of the Bush administration and has been looking for the perfect excuse to bring South Korea and the USA closer together after his predecessor, Roh Moo-Hyun, followed the US line much less blindly and pushed for closer ties with China.

The Cheonan affair also provides a pretext for increasing US troop numbers in South Korea and building a new navy base in Jeju Island. It also serves as a justification for the recent South Korea and US joint military training, which isn't simply about military training but restoring the close relationship the US and South Korea had before the liberal presidencies of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun. This will lead to greater US hegemony in South Korea and Japan. The US also used the JIG conclusions to get Japan’s centre-left Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio to renege on his pledge to remove US troops from Okinawa by playing on the fear of a North Korean attack on Japan.[32] This ultimately led to Hatoyama's resignation from office on June 2.

The May 20 release of the JIG report also occurred close to South Korea’s June 2 nationwide local elections -- an election for local mayoral and provincial positions in which candidates from the major political parties compete for local office. The voter turnout was the highest in 15 years and the results were heavily against the conservative Grand National Party -- with the liberal/ centrist Democratic Party gaining 367 local seats, while the conservative Grand National Party lost a staggering 775 seats. The results from the June election could not be more clear -- President Lee Myung-Buk and his party have lost favour with the people. The last two years of Grand National rule have brought about increased attacks on workers’ rights, targeting of trade unions and the rollback of many of the democratic freedoms that South Koreans have gained since the end of military rule in 1987. The Cheonan incident provided the perfect opportunity for the unpopular Lee regime whip up nationalism and fear in order to regain some of its lost popularity by blaming North Korea for the attack and pushing for a more aggressive policy towards the “enemy”.

Unfortunately, the Cheonan incident will most likely go down as another one of those mysteries in history, and the truth may not be revealed until 20 or 30 years after the incident. A very likely explanation for the sinking could be that it was destroyed by a sea mine or friendly fire from a training drill.[33] Politics in South Korea is very dirty, and it is not uncommon to read stories about political leaders being charged with corruption or other crooked dealings, so we should not simply believe what the South Korean government feeds its citizens. The conservative government is using this unfortunate incident to regain lost popularity and push forward its ideological goal of closer ties with the USA. In the meantime it is important that progressives in South Korea and around the world pressure the South Korean government into allowing a fair and independent investigation of the incident.

[Thanks to all my Korean friends who have helped me with this article. I also would like to extend a special thanks to Chris Kim from the International Socialist Organisation (USA) for all the help he has given me.]


[1] Cited in: “What Caused the Cheonan to Sink?'”,The Chosun Ilbo, March 29, 2010.

[2] Song Sang-ho, “Military Plays Down N.K. Foul Play”, The Korea Herald, April 2, 2010.

[3] Korean Central Newsagency of DPRK, “Spokesman for DPRK National Defense Commission Issues Statement”, May 20, 2010. This can be viewed on the official website of the North Korean state newsagency:

[4] As the South Korean daily newspaper The Hankyoreh reports: “Opinions are divided over the cause of the sinking of the Cheonan”, Seunghun Lee, “Pieces of the Cheonan puzzle”, The Hankyoreh, August 5, 2010,

[5] Cited in BBC News Asia Pacific, “S Koreans divided over response to North”, May 26, 2010.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] A full video and transcript of Hillary Clinton's May 21 press conference in Tokyo can be viewed at the official US Department of State website:

[10] Seunghun Lee, “Pieces of the Cheonan puzzle'”, The Hankyoreh, August 5, 2010.

[11] Rev. Kwon Oh-Sung and Rev. Jeon Byung-Ho, “Statement on the situation caused by the Cheonan incident”, Ecumenical Forum for Korea, 31 May 2010.

[12] People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, “Cheonan Warship Report 3”,

[13] Photo taken by Tak Ki-hyung for The Hankyoreh newspaper.

[14] “Editorial: The Sinking of the Cheonan”, New York Times, May 21, 2010,

[15] “Regime scraps accord over sub claims”, The Australian, May 28, 2010.

[16] John McGlynn, “Politics in Command: The `International’ Investigation into the Sinking of the Cheonan and the Risk of a New Korean War”, Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, n.d.,

[17] Seunghun Lee and J.J. Suh, “Rush to Judgment: Inconsistencies in South Korea's Cheonan Report”, Asia Pacific Journal, July 12, 2010.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Original Korean statement reads: “2003 입수한북한시험용어뢰에도 '4'라는 수기로기록된표기만있었고, 기계로 새긴것은없었다.”; cited in: 국방부, 천안함주장조목조목반박, 공감코리, 31 May 2010,

[20] Chun Hi Yun, '조사단발표는 다른의혹을낳고있다', Left21, 32 (2010),

[21] Seunghan Lee, “Pieces of the Cheonan Puzzle”, The Hankyoreh, August 5, 2010,; “Cheonan Investigators Presented Wrong Torpedo Diagram”, The Chosun Ilbo, June 30, 2010.

[22] Yonhap News Agency, June 29, 2010.

[23] “Russian Navy Expert Team's analysis on the Cheonan incident”, The Hankyoreh, July 29, 2010.

[24] Ha Uh-yeong, “Lee administration responds to Russian investigation report”, The Hankyoreh, July 28, 2010.

[25] “Russian Navy Expert Team's analysis on the Cheonan incident”, The Hankyoreh, July 29, 2010.

[26] “`Complex combination of factors’ responsible for Cheonan sinking, Russian investigation concludes”, The Hankyoreh, July 28, 2010.

[27] People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), “Cheonan Warship Report 3”,, June 4, 2010; 검찰, 천안함좌초설신상철어제소환조사 , Joong Ang Daily, May 29 2010,; Noh Hyun-woong, “Cheonan Investigation Team Member Indicted”, The Hankyoreh, August 27, 2010.

[28] 검찰, ‘천안함좌초설신상철어제소환조사 , Joong Ang Daily, May 29, 2010,

[29] See “Defense Chief Calls Internet Rumors on Cheonan 'Cyber Terrorism’”, Napsnet Daily Report, June 9, 2010.

[30] Cited in “Three `Cyber Evils’ in South Korea”, Association for Progressive Communications, August 9, 2010.

[31] For an overview of the Lee administration's rollback of South Korean democracy see: George Katsiaficas, “South Korea's rollback of democracy”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, May 25, 2009.

[32] Martin Fackler, “Japanese leader concedes to U.S. base on Okinawa”, The New York Times, May 23, 2010,

[33] For more information on the possibility of the Cheonan hitting a mine see Yoichi Shimatsu, “Did an American Mine Sink the South Korean Ship Cheonan?”, Socio-Economics History Blog, May 31, 2010,