Joshua PollackThe Cheonan Report, Continued

The text and visual aids released at last week’s press conference on the findings of the multinational investigation into the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan are now available.

(Another version of the briefing slides can be seen here.)

The nature of the event now appears beyond serious dispute, so the debate has moved to the realm of politics and intentions. Ruediger Frank of the University of Vienna has a piece at 38 North speculating that someone high up in the North Korean military hierarchy may have been responsible, rather than Kim Jong Il. But I’m afraid that I don’t quite follow his reasoning.

On the other side of the ledger, tomorrow’s New York Times features an article by David Sanger on the question of culpability, pointing directly to the top:

Although the American officials who spoke about the intelligence assessment would not reveal much about what led them to conclude that Mr. Kim [i.e., Kim Jong Il] was directly involved, one factor appeared to be intelligence that he appeared on April 25, the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, with a military unit that intelligence agencies believe to have been responsible for the attack.

Mr. Kim used the event to praise the group, Unit 586, the officials said, and around that time a fourth star appears to have been given to Gen. Kim Myong-guk, who officials believe may have played a crucial role in executing the attack. General Kim is believed to have been demoted to a three-star general last year, perhaps in response to the humiliation that took place after a North Korean ship ventured into South Korean waters. The North Korean ship was all but destroyed, and some analysts believe the attack on the Cheonan, which was in South Korean waters, was planned as retribution.

“Nobody is going to take overt credit for the sinking,” said Jonathan Pollack, a professor at the Naval War College and an expert on North Korea’s military. “But Kim’s visit to this unit has all the hallmarks of congratulating them for a job well done.”

The senior American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence assessment is classified, said they ruled out the idea that General Kim or another military officer decided on his own to attack, but they did not explain how they reached that conclusion.

The KCNA account of the visit to Unit 586 (not to be confused with a visit to Unit 115 around the same time) describes how KJI was shown “records of victories showing a glorious course of the unit shining with exploits.”

Look, this is not what I want to be telling you, but the outlook for nuclear diplomacy is very poor. Little threatens to distract Stephen Bosworth from his deanly duties at Tufts.

(We’ve written about the Cheonan disaster before, here and here. For previous reports on Gen. Kim Myong-guk, see Northeast Asia Matters and North Korea Leadership Watch.)


  1. Captain Ned (History)

    As always, SK responses are mediated by the knowledge that NK can hit Seoul with 100,000 artillery shells of 152mm or larger in the first 5 minutes of any “disagreement”. Doing so will eventually spell death for the NK regime, but they can inflict massive conventional arms damage until the decapitation occurs.

  2. Hippo1


    The Sanger article incorrectly describes the sinking of the Cheonan as having occurred in South Korean waters. Understanding the nature of the event, as well as the intentions behind it will, remain difficult as long as the clashes in the area continue to be portrayed as happening in South Korean waters. The Northern Limit Line (NLL) is not an internationally recognized border. The NLL was unilaterally demarcated by the U.S. (under the guise of the UN command) in 1953 to prevent South Korean ships from moving north. It was never accepted by North Korea nor is it mentioned in the 1953 Armistice Agreement. The area should thus properly be described as being disputed territory. One could just as accurately describe the North Korean vessel damaged in 2009 as being attacked in North Korean waters and the sinking of the Cheonan as having occurred in North Korean territory. This is not meant to justify the sinking, but it helps put it in better context then continually describing the continuing clashes as have occurred in South Korean waters. Indeed, understanding the potential domestic pressure on Kim Jong Il becomes easier if it is understood that from their perspective in November one of their ships was attacked in North Korean waters. Kim’s failure to respond to such a perceived provocation would undoubtedly have weakened him in the eyes of his military commanders. Rather than being an unprovoked act of aggression, the sinking of the Cheonan might better be understood as a tit for tat response to military actions taken by the South. Having an accurate understanding of the events (aggression or reaction?) is critical for crafting an appropriate response (are we trying to deter or prevent further escalation?)
    There remain a host of unanswered questions behind this issue. For instance, was the Cheonan a target of opportunity or a pre-planned attack? Do DPRK naval vessels have standing orders to fire upon RoK ships in the disputed waters? Was the DPRK sub conducting routine naval maneuvers when the Cheonan crossed its path or was it deliberately waiting for a RoK naval vessel to sail into its operating area? How often do RoK naval vessels operate in the disputed waters and do the travel along predictable routes?

    A discussion of the DLL can be found at

  3. joel wit (History)

    Since my friend Ridger Frank probably doesnt read this blog (although I do religiously), I think his article makes perfect sense. It was purely a riff on what if Kim in fact wasnt behind the sinking and what that would mean rather than the standard stuff about it being revenge and intended to humiliate the South.

    The problem with almost everyone who anlayzes North Korea is that they arent willing to consider all the alternatives or they just follow the pack. So hats off to Rudiger for at least thinking out of the box.

  4. Steven Dolley (History)

    Don’t think I quite agree with Sanger’s sources’ reasoning on Kim Jong Il having authorized the attack. Maybe he did, of course. I sure don’t know either way.

    But if he hadn’t done so, wouldn’t he have gone out of his way to make it look like he had? Just to make it look like he’s still got a firm grip?

    Best way to do that: give the general that screwed up, and/or exceeded his authority, a medal.

  5. Josh (History)


    Thanks for your comment. (Joel Wit, in case anyone here doesn’t already know, is the prime mover behind 38 North, among other things.) If we are to read RF’s article as exploratory, it works well enough that way. Fair enough — there’s a place for thinking aloud. Although I’m not sure everyone has read it that way.

    I do note, in passing, that RF speculates further, within the space of the scenario he proposes, about the possibility of KJI conducting a purge of rebellious generals. Instead, we see a demoted general being promoted. So, without dismissing the heuristic value of the exercise, perhaps we should be focusing on other possibilities at this point. But see below…


    Just to be clear, I haven’t highlighted the main line of reasoning in Sanger’s article. It goes like this:

    WASHINGTON — A new American intelligence analysis of a deadly torpedo attack on a South Korean warship concludes that Kim Jong-il, the ailing leader of North Korea, must have authorized the torpedo assault, according to senior American officials who cautioned that the assessment was based on their sense of the political dynamics there rather than hard evidence.
    The officials said they were increasingly convinced that Mr. Kim ordered the sinking of the ship, the Cheonan, to help secure the succession of his youngest son.
    “We can’t say it is established fact,” said one senior American official who was involved in the highly classified assessment, based on information collected by many of the country’s 16 intelligence agencies. “But there is very little doubt, based on what we know about the current state of the North Korean leadership and the military.”

    As you can see, there’s a healthy acknowledgment of uncertainty in there.

    If, per your suggestion, Gen. Kim Myong-guk is being promoted for disobedience — although I rather doubt it — then we’re back in RF’s scenario space, aren’t we?

    But there are very few signs of KJI’s being that weak. He was just in China, after all. Leaving the country to conduct foreign relations in person doesn’t seem like the act of a profoundly insecure ruler.