Cheonan Incident 

Sinking of the South Korean 1,200-ton patrol ship Cheonan (천안함) on March 26, 2010, was one of the events which seriously affected the situation on the Korean peninsula for years ahead. 

The incident occurred in Yellow (Western Korean) sea at 9:22 pm local time, one mile away to the south from Baekryong Island (백령도) Island, killing 46 of 104 people on board.

An international team investigated the incident, including 49 Koreans (27 civilian experts and 22 military people), 15 Americans, 3 Australians, 2 British, 4 Swedish members). 

The conclusion of the commission was as follows: 1) The ship sank due to external explosion; 2) It was non-contact explosion; 3) The explosion was caused by acoustic torpedo; 4) The torpedo had North Korean origin; 5) The ship was destroyed by a North Korean submarine.

South Korean investigation supported the conclusions.

North Korea denied the accusations, saying it had nothing to do with the incident.

The Russian Government also sent its experts to investigate the incident. The author came to Seoul together with them, but the experts did not disclosed any information about this case. 

The author was kindly given an opportunity to inspect Cheonan ship alone in early June, 2010, by the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea. He was one of the first foreign journalists who was able to see the ship and the torpedo. 

Cheonan was relocated to the fenced place near the South Korean military base near the city of Pyeongtaek. It was two hours car drive distance from Seoul. On the spot explanations were received from Brigadier-General Park Chung-soo (the conversation was in Korean). The author is not an expert in the naval issues, so he described the technical details as it was heard or seen and this information may contain some terminological inaccuracies. 

The ship was broken into on three pieces - the fore body, the after body of the ship and the stack.  

Standing between the two parts of the main body of the ship, the author found himself in the place where the hull was broken in half. It was clear that the ship was not destroyed as a result of hitting an underwater rock or a submarine. Here's why: first of all, if we were talking about the reefs, the damage would have been done below the bow, however sonar dome as well as other areas of the bottom of the ship were intact. Scratches and rust on the hull sides were visible in stripes from the bottom to the top, left by  chains and cables that were used to pull out the parts of the Cheonan from the water. Aluminum parts of the ship were damaged more with chains and rocks on the seafloor.  

This is clearly seen on the following pictures, made by the author.

Now let's look at the failure point, the damaged part of the hull. It shows that the blow was given from the left side, just under the gas-turbin room: the bottom shell plate which is 1,5 cm thick was steeply bent upward, like a cooking foil. The fin stabilizers were also bent by pressure in one direction. 

There are indications that no burning occurred at the time of the blast that split the ship apart. Rubber-covered wires was cut with no traces of heat, as well as on aluminum parts of the interior. The South Korean officers explained, that it would not be possible if the explosion took place inside the ship or in the close physical contact with the hull. 

So what happened? 

As Gen.Park explained, the ship Cheonan was destroyed by a powerful blow, produced by an explosion approximately 3 m away from the bottom of the ship. The general said, that the power of the blow first forced Cheonan to go up and then brought the ship down and cracked in the middle. At the same time a water splash, up to a hundred meters high, with the bubble jet effect split the ship's body. South Korean military experts draw the picture with graphic explanation of the destruction process. International experts also stated in their final report on May 20, that a "strong shockwave and bubble effects caused the splitting and sinking of the ship".

The left propeller was stopped by the the blast while the right one was still spinning and its blades were all deformed. Near a broken pipe of the gas turbine room, salt like traces of aluminum oxides were allegedly left by the explosives. The same oxides the author saw on the turbine blades as well, as shown in the photos below.

The torpedo

South Korean officers also invited the author to inspect the torpedo which allegedly hit the corvette Cheonan. The parts of torpedo, recovered on the seafloor near the place where Cheonan sank, also contained traces of aluminum oxide, same as on the ship's body. That's why the investigation commission made the conclusion that the corvette was destroyed by the torpedo. 

The two sections of torpedo was placed in a glass sarcophagi in an auditorium in the Ministry of Defence in Seoul. The torpedo propulsion motor system including propellers, a propulsion motor, and steering section was presented as evidence of North Korean involvement. 

South Korean officers showed the photos of the torpedo parts taken right after they were found two month earlier. One could see that the corrosion was much less than at the moment of the author's inspection because salt water did its work very fast and there were much more rust.

The officers demonstrated no doubts that the torpedo was made in North Korea. As a proof they presented a schematic of an analogue one from  an introductory brochure produced by DPRK for export purposes. But if so, the torpedo can be purchased in a third country, not only North Korea. Details on the schematic up to the bolts look the same as the remains of the torpedo.  

One of the most controversial details was the Korean marking “1번 ("Number 1" in English)” inside the rear section of the propulsion system. The investigators said that it was similar to the marking of a North Korean test torpedo, obtained in 2003. However, the difference is that the marking on the torpedo of 2003 contained counting suffix "호" (ho) instead of "번" (peon)  which is useful in South Korea, but not in the North. So it is not clear why the torpedo which allegedly destroyed the Cheonan ship was marked in South Korean dialect. It's curious, that only one component of the torpedo was marked, and a blue ink marker was used. 

Video record of Cheonan observation by the author:

North Korea presented her own arguments, confronting the results of the international investigation and the claims of the ROK's generals. 

The central newspaper Nodong Sinmun on May 26, 2010, published it's own analysis and made the following conclusions:

1) Traces of hexogene (oxides) on the Cheonan ship's hull. 

Firstly, as Nodong Sinmun insisted on, that it would be very difficult to find traces of hexogene being in the water with strong currents for a few days. Secondly, the survivals from the ship's crew at the beginning said that they did not feel the smell of explosives; and if the explosion took place 6-9 meters away from the corvette the traces of hexogene could not be left on the surface of the hull. The newspaper also repeated the remarks, already known in South Korea, that if an explosion split the ship apart, why there was no stunned fish around. 

2) 1,5 m part of the torpedo

Nodong sinmun reminded, that the remains of the torpedo were allegedly discovered almost 50 days after the incident by a civilian boat, not South Korean and American ships, searching the area. The Newspaper raised the question: why the parts of torpedo practically were intact.  

3) Marking on the torpedo with blue ink marker

As the Nodong sinmun wrote, it would be stupid to leave a mark telling an enemy than this was the North Korean weapon. Secondly, the DPRK navy never had this type of marking. 

4) Submarine's route

The international commission of investigators insisted that the alleged submarine departed from North Korea three days before the tragedy with Cheonan, moving along a trajectory in the shape of U, got closer to the corvette and after firing the torpedo, returned to its North Korean base the same way. It happened in the area of endless tension between two parts of Korea, where the strongest surveillance system was active, especially at the time of ongoing US-South Korean drills. 

5) Objectivity of the investigation

a) Nodong sinmun noted that the investigation was conducted under the egis of South Korean military people, who were responsible for such a kind of incidents. In this case. an investigation should be started against the military themselves, as the newspaper claims. The other members of the commission were from the countries which were the close allies of South Korea. 

b) The military's story about the events changed repeatedly. At the very beginning they said, that no abnormal activity was noticed in North Korea, and the incident had nothing to do with Pyongyang.  


Nodong Shinmun commented only on accusations about the DPRK, but did not make any own versions of the incident. The newspaper only mentioned some versions from South Korea.

On June 22, 2010, the Korean Central News Agency published "indictment", accusing South Korea and the US in "fabricating" the incident. 

 Controversy

The conclusuions of the international and South Korean investigators left many questions unanswered and some doubts to be dispelled. 

The Nature magazine writes how "Physicists' research casts doubt on idea that North Korean torpedo downed vessel" (Published online 8 July 2010).

There is a documentary video "Beneath the Surface: the investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan".


Some conclusions of the author:

 1) After the investigation results were published, it doesn't really matter if North Korea involved in the incident or not.

2) The results of the investigation, published in South Korea, was aimed to play a role of a verdict against North Korea. 

3) The verdict was brought in and not subject to any appeal. Even if anything in the report of the investigation team was wrong, it would be naive to expect that somebody admitted it. 

4) The verdict was implemented immediately: the government of the former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak started "psychological warfare" against Pyongyang, the US, South Korea and Japan raised Cheonan incident at the UN Security Council, and imposed unilateral suctions, punishing North Korea. 

5) The aim of this anti-North Korean campaign was to prevent cooperation with Pyongyang for its further isolation.