Foreign Affairs

Forgot about the Cheonan?

The mysterious sinking of the 1,200-ton South Korean warship Cheonan on March 26 while on patrol in waters near the disputed maritime border with North Korea calls to mind a similar incident the U.S. suffered 112 years earlier. The highly emotional flames generated by the latter incident—fanned by “yellow journalism”—became a catalyst for the war that followed. Today, similar emotional flames over Cheonan’s loss may well be doused by journalism of a different sort. 

On the evening of February 15, 1898, the battleship USS Maine was anchored in Havana Harbor—there to protect American interests in the long-running fight between Spain and its independence-seeking Cuban colony. Tensions between Washington and Madrid were high. The calm of that night was shattered by an explosion in the Maine’s forward section. The ship quickly sank, claiming 260 American lives.

While the cause of the explosion remained a mystery, newspapers fighting for readership jumped on the incident as a means to increase sales. Exploiting and distorting the news—an industry art form that came to be called “yellow journalism”—reporters slanted the news to sensationalize it. As the Navy continued its investigation, the newspapers worked the American public’s emotions into a frenzy. 

The results of the investigation were released March 28, 1898. It found the ship’s magazines, filled with munitions, had been set off by an external explosion occurring under the Maine’s hull. (Over the years, subsequent investigations either supported or challenged this conclusion, with the most definitive done in 1999 by National Geographic, agreeing that an external explosive was at fault.) Less than a month later, the U.S. and Spain were at war. It was a conflict the American people were prepared to wage as yellow journalism had generated a strong anti-Spanish sentiment. In less than four months, the war was over, ending centuries of Spanish rule in Cuba, the Philippines and elsewhere.

As with the Maine, the sinking of the Cheonan raises an important question: was it accidental or intentional? The key to answering this question is whether forensics will show damage to Cheonan was caused internally, forcefully ripping the steel of its hull outward, or externally, forcing it inward. If the former, then the cause is accidental or sabotage, turning investigators’ focus to the crew; if the latter, the cause is intentional, turning the focus to an outside source. 

The cause of an external explosion is fairly limited—torpedo or mine. Cheonan went down quickly in relatively shallow waters. While this will make recovery operations for evidence of the cause easier, it makes one of the possible causes less likely. Shallow waters detract from the theory a torpedo from an unfriendly submarine was responsible as a sub’s operating parameters are greatly inhibited and an increased likelihood of prior detection by Cheonan existed. The more likely cause is a mine, probably magnetic. Thus, the final question is who put it there?

The most likely culprit—owning a long-standing track record of senseless, unprovoked acts of aggression against South Korea—is North Korea.

If one examines the record, numerous such acts followed North Korea’s 1950 surprise invasion of the South to start the Korean War. These included abductions of hundreds of South Korean citizens; covert infiltrations of thousands of North Korean spies; tunneling under the DMZ into the South to be able to launch a future surprise invasion; hijacking three South Korean passenger planes (two successfully in 1958 and 1969, one unsuccessfully in 1971), followed by a subsequent refusal to return some passengers; and blowing up a passenger airliner in midair in 1987.

North Korea also attempted repeatedly to assassinate South Korean presidents (failed presidential attacks killed the First Lady in 1974 and 17 South Koreans and four Burmese officials in 1983); dispatched numerous mini-submarines with commandos to conduct special operations in the South; murdered South Korean citizens and North Koreans who defected to South Korea—including, in 1997, the nephew of Pyongyang’s current leader—Kim Jong Il; threatened members of the media for expressing unflattering opinions of life in the North—such as a 1997 documentary depicting repression, triggering Pyongyang’s threat “to kill everyone involved” in its production. 

Though not all inclusive, this list of aggressions is illustrative of a North Korean mindset that a state of war still exists with the South, despite a 1953 truce. What is worrisome is the high-profile voice of Kim Jong Il in many of these acts.

As for a motive for the Cheonan incident, Pyongyang has been unhappy with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. When he took office in 2008, he immediately revoked his predecessors’ decade-long appeasement initiative known as the “Sunshine Policy.” This policy effectively was “peace for tribute,” generating billions of dollars for the North, which pumped much of the money into its nuclear weapons program. 

Three months ago, North Korea provoked an incident, firing 30 artillery rounds near Baeknyeong Island, only ten miles from where the Cheonan went down. Earlier that day, Pyongyang’s military threatened both South Korea and the U.S. with "unpredictable strikes"—simply for issuing a report on possible instability in the North. Also, Cheonan’s patrol route was routine and well known to the North Koreans. Thus, both motive and opportunity favor Pyongyang as the culprit. If this is further supported by forensics, a harsh response against the North is mandated.

The loss of the Choenan has, as did the loss of the USS Maine a century earlier, generated high emotion. There is one big difference, however. With the loss of the Maine, a media committed to sensationalism pushed the American public toward war. But, despite North Korea’s long record of aggression and following ten years of a “kumbaya” Sunshine Policy, South Korea’s media has consistently down-played any threat by the North, pushing the Korean public away from war. Thus, “yellow journalism” of an earlier era—which gave rise to the battle cry “Remember the Maine”—has transitioned today into “mellow journalism” which, should the North be deemed responsible for the sinking, may give rise to the appeaser’s battle cry, “Forget the Choenan!”


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