17.04.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The truth about the sinking of the Cheonan corvette – still a mystery under Yoon Suk-yeol, just as it was under Moon Jae-in

The truth about the sinking of the Cheonan corvette

In late March 2024, South Korea marked the 10th anniversary of the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan corvette near the western maritime boundary between North and South Korea. The March 26, 2010 tragedy claimed the lives of 46 out of the 104 sailors on board and was also politically significant, as it changed the course of relations between the two Koreas. After some deliberation the south Korean authorities announced that the corvette was sunk by a North Korean stealth midget submarine. This announcement triggered a further deterioration of the situation, culminating in the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea, and a package of unilateral sanctions by South Korea against its northern neighbor.

In today’s South Korea, with the Conservatives in power, there is little interest in refuting this version and some fringe Conservative NGOs are even demanding the passing of a law making it a criminal offence to challenge the official version, by analogy with the law passed under the Democrats regarding the events in Gwangju.

Amid growing tensions and statements by the DPRK leadership that it does not recognize the Northern Limit Line, as the disputed maritime border is known, the anniversary was celebrated with considerable pomp. On March 26, 2024, a memorial ceremony was held at the Second Fleet Headquarters of the South Korean Navy, attended by about 200 people, including government officials, family members and fellow soldiers. Admiral Yang Yong-mo, South Korea’s Chief of Naval Operations, sent a message of support to the families of the victims and their fellow sailors. After the ceremony, participants viewed the wreckage of the corvette and boarded the new patrol ship, also named ROKS Cheonan.

The commander of the new ship is second rank captain Park Young-soo, who was a member of the crew of the sunken corvette and has vowed to “defend the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea, with the mindset of heading into the front lines with all my comrades of the ROKS Cheonan.”

Defense Minister Shin Won-sik also spoke at the ceremony, calling for the protection of the western maritime boundary from enemy threats. He reminded his audience that Kim Jong-un had called the disputed maritime border “a ghost line with no legal basis and that he was continuously trying to annul it.”

After the ceremony, a group of grieving relatives held a press conference to denounce politicians who denied that the North was behind the 2010 attack and called for a special law to punish those who defame the sailors.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol spoke in a similar vein. Speaking at a Cabinet meeting on March 26, he noted that there are people in the country who deny that North Korea sank the South Korean corvette. He added that it was a common practice to disseminate inaccurate information, thereby creating social discord and insulting heroes who died in defense of the country.

On March 27, the South Korean Navy said it was conducting annual naval exercises to coincide with the anniversary in order to boost readiness against North Korean naval threats and to honor the South Korean sailors killed near the western maritime boundary (in addition to the corvette tragedy, clashes in the area occurred in 1999, 2002, and 2009).

However, the corvette tragedy is an illustration of how a strange story with several possible explanations, some more likely than others, has been turned, for reasons of political expediency, into a version cobbled together, in the opinion of one of the present author’s respondents, “not with white thread, but with white ropes.” That is despite the fact that seventy-three experts from five countries, South Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Sweden, participated in the investigation.

All those involved noted that the remains of the torpedo that had allegedly sank the corvette, and which were “found on the seabed near the site of the sinking” were heavily corroded. In addition it took a long time to identify the blueprint of the torpedo. Moreover, the “North Korean branding” that was presented as definitive proof turned out to be an inscription in purple marker, the origin of which is highly questionable. Significantly, the report made by the team of military experts sent by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev remains officially classified. However, if leaks are to be believed, the conclusion reached by the Russian experts excludes any North Korean involvement: the corvette ran aground and, as it was trying to turn around its propellers got caught in a net, which brought up a mine from the Korean War period up from the sea bed.

Officially, however, this version cannot be relied on, and so the present author would like to draw attention to a number of other theories, including the “American version” that was popular in South Koreas in leftist circles. According to this theory, the corvette collided with a US submarine during exercises, but the authorities are covering this incident up. In fact, there was no more evidence for this theory than there was for the “North Korean” version, but it did have a fairly influential proponent. Shin Sang-chul, one of the government commission’s experts, immediately issued a “dissenting opinion.”

In 34 articles written between April and June 2010, Shin Sang-chul claimed that the ROKS Cheonan had ran aground, and in attempting to refloat, had damaged its plating and sunk. In addition, Shin “groundlessly claimed that the South Korean military deliberately delayed its rescue operations” and alleged that evidence had been fabricated – according to him, the “number one” inscription was actually added in South Korea.

On January 26, 2016, Shin Sang-chul was charged with “intentionally fomenting public distrust of the investigation” and was sentenced by the trial court to two years in prison, suspended for two years.

Shin Sang-chul’s allegations were in the public interest and it is unlikely that they were deliberate defamation. Moreover, the court found signs of libel and incitement in only two out of the thirty-four articles. One of these articles claimed that the government and navy deliberately delayed the search for survivors in order to fabricate the cause of death, while the other accused South Korea’s Defense Minister of mounting a cover-up and fabricating evidence.

Moreover, Shin Sang-chul’s claims that the corvette’s sinking was NOT caused by the DPRK’s action have never been disproved.

Other theories have also been put forward. Japanese researcher Sakai Tanaka has suggested that the corvette’s sinking was caused by “friendly fire” – a torpedo fired by an American submarine. Russian researcher Dmitry Verkhoturov also believes that the damage to the corvette’s hull could not have been caused by North Korean SNT-02D torpedoes, as their homing system guides the torpedo towards the noise of the propellers and they explode under the target vessel’s stern, in the area of the propeller and rudder system. On the other hand, American Mark 48 torpedoes have an active sonar guidance system that homes in on the ship’s magnetic and electromagnetic field and explodes under the keel in the engine room area, where the most massive steel parts are located. In his opinion, the two vessels failed to recognize each other as being on the same side and engaged in a fight.

Under Moon Jae-in’s leadership, the present author had some hope that either factional infighting within South Korea or the 2018 warming or relations between the two Koreas would lead to a new investigation into the tragedy, and that it would be revealed to have been an accident. Such a conclusion would have significantly improved relations between North and South Korea. But when on March 26, 2020, South Korea commemorated “the memory of those who died off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula in the course of repelling three armed provocations by the North in 2002 and in 2010,” the mother of one of the dead sailors approached Moon and asked “Does the new government have any new views on who was responsible for the loss of the corvette? Is it still North Korea?” The Democratic president answered bluntly that there was not the slightest change in the government’s official position.

Nevertheless, on December 14, 2020, the Presidential Truth Commission on Deaths in the Military decided to review the case at the request of Shin Sang-chul. The Commission found that Shin met the eligibility requirements for filing a petition.

However, on April 1, 2021, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it had confidence in the results of the joint civilian and military investigation which blamed North Korea for the corvette’s sinking. “The Defense Ministry trusts the findings of the investigation team, and our stance on this issue remains the same.” A day later, on April 2, the Presidential commission decided not to re-investigate the disaster, reversing its earlier decision in view of the outrage expressed by surviving crew members and members of the victims’ families. “After an in-depth review and discussion,” it has been found that Shin Sang-chul did not meet the criteria for filing a petition after all, and thus “the case does not meet the conditions for initiating a new investigation.”

Thus, even under Moon Jae-in, the authorities did not dare to challenge the official myth, and therefore the present author proposes to conclude this article with a series of non-rhetorical questions and cite the relevant facts so that readers can draw their own conclusions about the disaster based on logic rather than on political considerations.

What was the ship doing in an area with a large number of sandbanks, just two kilometers offshore? The official version is that it was taking shelter from the storm, but that does not explain why it approached the coast rather than remaining in navigable waters.

Is it true that Seoul was laying mines in the area of the corvette’s sinking in an attempt to protect its territorial waters from Pyongyang’s saboteurs, but that because of crossed wires the corvette had not been properly informed of this?

Why did none of the official services notice the torpedo’s wake? And did any of the survivors mention two torpedo strikes?

Why, when engaged in exercises in which they were practicing, among other things, a battle against submarines, did no one observe (let alone attempt to destroy) the enemy submarine either on the way to the exercise area or on the way back?

Why, shortly after the tragedy, was there so much talk about an ultra-small stealth boat capable of navigating in shallow waters and yet also armed with torpedoes, while later reports on North Korea’s military potential make no mention of this very important type of craft? The more time that passes since the tragedy, the clearer things become.

Why has Seoul never released the footage of the cameras installed on Baengnyeong Island, which take infrared pictures around the clock? There is footage of the ship sinking into the water, and of South Korean Navy boats arriving to help, but no footage of the moment of the explosion or of any other event that caused the ship to sink.

How does the claim that traces of explosives were found (which has not been refuted) correlate with the fact that these explosives are not used in North Korean torpedoes?

A seismogram study of the underwater explosion made in 2014 by a team of researchers from South Korea, Israel and Portugal determined that the explosion had a force equivalent to that of 136 kilograms of TNT and occurred at a depth of 8 meters, while the sea in the region is 44 meters deep. This conclusion, by the way, is inconsistent with the theory that the corvette ran into an old bottom mine, and the force of the explosion is more consistent with that of a torpedo.

Experts from the University of Virginia (USA) and the University of Manitoba (Canada) conducted spectroscopic and X-ray diffraction studies of samples of material taken from the tail part of the torpedo (assumed to be North Korean), from the hull of the corvette and a control sample obtained during a test explosion. The South Korean experts believed that the substance was aluminum oxide, and was the result of the explosion. However, X-ray diffraction analysis showed that it was not aluminum oxide, and that the data for the third sample was different from that for the first two. Comparison with control samples revealed that aluminum hydroxide was present in the samples taken from the torpedo and the corvette hull. This substance is not produced by explosions but by the corrosion of aluminum in seawater as a result of prolonged contact. The researchers concluded that there was evidence that the South Korean report was falsified and therefore invalid.

How is it that none of the survivors had injuries consistent with the aftermath of a torpedo attack – and why did none of the crew suffer from shrapnel wounds, burns or concussion? Moreover, the crew members who were on the bridge wings and who now would have expected to have been killed by shrapnel or blast survived.

Why was not even a simple expert examination conducted into the level of corrosion of the torpedo wreckage and the shells clinging to its propellers, in order to determine approximately how long it had been under water? And why was the lettering on the torpedo in so much better condition?

And how is possible to talk about a “specifically North Korean style of lettering”?

Did the examination take into account the fact that the corvette was built in the late 1980s and, according to the sailors’ relatives, they referred to it a little more than a rust bucket.

How can we explain that the day after the tragedy, relatives of the sailors who were still missing claimed that the cause of the tragedy was the vessel’s grounding, even citing a navy chart that had been leaked to the South Korean media. Only afterwards did officials, right up to the level of head of state, begin to claim that the ship had been sunk by an explosion.

Why were all the survivors first isolated and then placed under strict non-disclosure orders, and why has not a single sailor yet come forward with an account of what happened?

The questions are many, and the present author’s technical expertise is not enough to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, but it is sufficient to cast doubt on the official version, which Yoon Seok-yeol’s administration insists on sticking to.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

Related articles: