Impact of the Cheonan Incident on the Six-Party Talks

Impact of the Cheonan Incident on the Six-Party Talks

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Melissa Hanham

Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

More than a month after the suspicious sinking of South Korean navy vessel the Cheonan, Beijing is taking the Herculean step of meeting with leaders of both North and South Korea in an attempt to restart the Six-Party Talks.

Sinking of the Cheonan

The Cheonan, a South Korean navy corvette, sank on 26 March after a non-contact external explosion under the ship caused it to break in two.[1] Yoon Duk-yong, the civilian lead investigator for the joint-military investigation, explained that a severe pressure change caused by a bubble-jet from a torpedo or sea mine detonation was the likely cause of the damage to the ship. However, evidence of a small amount of the explosive RDX as well as four pieces of aluminum un-related to the ship recovered from the scene indicates that a torpedo may be the definitive cause.[2] Final results of the investigation are expected soon. Internal explosion, fatigue fracture, or collision with a reef, have all been ruled out.[3]

The Cheonan was located near the western sea border with North Korea close to the disputed Northern Limit Line. The two navies previously faced-off in the same area in 1999, 2002 and November 2009, however the loss of life had never reached this magnitude.[4] Forty-six of the 104 sailors on board the Cheonan were lost in the incident, causing major domestic furor in South Korea. ROK President Lee Myung-bak, while not outrightly accusing Pyongyang of being responsible, declared that the incident was not "due to a simple accident", and that "it was a grave international and inter-Korean matter."[5] Lee is facing considerable domestic pressure as polls show that 80 per cent of South Koreans believe the North is at fault.[6] He has promised to respond sternly once a final determination from the investigation is released.

Twenty-two days after the Cheonan sank, North Korea gave an official denial of any involvement in what it deemed a "regretful accident."[7] North and South Korea remain in a technical state or war; however a motivation for such an attack by North Korea is unclear. One possibility put forth by South Korean media is that this incident was a disproportionate response to the November 2009 altercation in which two North Korean lives were lost. South Korean media outlets reported that Kim Myung-kook, a KPA General in charge of operations against the South, had been demoted after the 2009 incident. However, media reports indicated that he was seen on DPRK state television on April 24 again wearing all four stars, leading some to wonder if he had been "rewarded" for successful action against the Cheonan. [8] However, it can also not be discounted that the attack was a result of over-extended and poorly trained KPA forces.

Kim Jong-il's Visit to China

On May 3 2010, three days after ROK President Lee Myung-bak met with Hu Jintao in Shanghai, North Korea's reclusive president Kim Jong-il crossed by train into China for a four day visit.[9] The trip was treated as a traditional party-to-party visit, with the foreign ministries and state media of both countries keeping tight lipped on the subject. After crossing the border early Monday, Kim's armored train stopped in Dandong. He then continued to the Chinese port-city of Dalian, long considered one of the North's major transshipment points for exports, where he reportedly visited a car factory and stopped at the five-star Furama Hotel.[10] Kim also made a stop at Tianjin, a port city home to China's newest high-tech sector, before arriving at the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing on Wednesday where he met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao as well as other CCP leaders.[11] Kim Jong-il's entourage included experts on China, the United States, investment and the Six-Party Talks. There was no evidence to prove that his third son and heir-apparent Kim Jong-un participated.[12]

Within the context of the Kim visit, Hu Jintao put forward five proposals to strengthen Sino-DPRK relations, the second of which included, "strategic communication on both domestic and foreign policy issues."[13] China is traditionally wary of wading into another state's domestic affairs, but this addition could indicate China's concern about leadership succession in the North as well as possible repercussions of Cheonan incident. China may also be concerned about the impact on China's border region of failed North Korean domestic reforms like the currency reforms that caused major upheaval in the DPRK in late 2009.[14] Highlighting Pyongyang's sensitivity about this proposal, North Korea's official media outlet KCNA later removed this point from its own reporting of the events.[15]

What Does It Mean for the Six-Party Talks?

With regard to the Six-Party Talks, China characterized the exchange as "frank", stating that parties should show sincerity in promoting the Talks and make positive efforts toward that goal.[16] Kim Jong-il promised "to provide favorable conditions for the resumption of the six-party talks… declaring that the DPRK remains unchanged in its basic stand to preserve the aim of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, implement the joint statement adopted at the six-party talks and pursue a peaceful solution through dialogue."[17]

Despite Kim and Hu's meeting that appeared to reinforce the Six-Party Talks, the process is unlikely to move forward in the near future. Both South Korea and the United States have stated that the talks are on hold pending the completion of the forensic investigation into the Cheonan incident.[18] South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said that "if convincing evidence of North Korea's involvement is found, I think the six-party talks will be unable to take place for the time being"[19]

Obstacle to Peace and Security: Lee's Domestic Problem

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's job approval initially lost eight percentage points in polls after the sinking of the Cheonan.[20] While his ratings are now once again close to their peak, he is keenly aware of how his response to the incident will affect his tenure in office. Lee raised the issue in his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Shanghai Expo, noting that all South Koreans are taking the situation seriously in order to "express the great scale of grief and anger in South Korea over the tragedy."[21] Also signaling his concern, Lee chaired a bi-annual meeting between the commanders of the ROK armed forces—which is normally chaired by the Defense Minister.[22]

Lee's domestic pressure has spilled over into its security relationship with the United States, where the incident has led to calls for a delay in the handover of war-time operational control (OPCON) currently scheduled for 2012. South Korea's Defense Minister Mik Tae-young said the "surprise attack" will cause the South to "remember this day as a day of shame".[23] The DPRK's aging submarines, which in the past have run aground or been caught in fishing nets, were not considered a threat.[24] For now, this issue is tabled until the upcoming meeting between the Mik and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in July.

Obstacle to Peace and Security: Hu's Diplomatic Problem

Chinese president Hu Jintao has the difficult job of restarting the lapsed Six-Party Talks at the lowest point of inter-Korean relations in recent memory. China sees the talks as an opportunity to raise its profile as a responsible leader, ensure its interests along the Korean border and prevent proliferation in Northeast Asia. Beijing has taken great care to frame the meetings with both Korean leaders as balanced, so as to avoid the appearance of preference.

Beijing will face additional pressure if South Korea chooses to report the incident to the UN Security Council. As a veto-wielding member, China will once again be forced to examine how best to censure the DPRK. Sanctions on individuals, organizations, WMD-related material and luxury goods are already in place.

Obstacle to Peace and Security: Kim's Economic Problem

Kim Jong-il's rare trip comes at a time when the North is facing economic difficulty from last year's disastrous currency reforms.[25] The resulting price fluctuations on rice and corn have already caused many North Koreans to consume the portion of grain normally reserved for the lean season in May and June.[26] Even additional rations provided in Pyongyang to combat illegal hoarding by businesses and foreign trade companies have failed to calm prices, which are now largely based on North Korean concerns on future prices.[27] Additionally, the World Food Program reports that it only has enough aid to continue its program to June. Donor fatigue and fears that food is being redirected to military elites have plagued the program, which gave assistance to 1.5 million North Koreans.[28]

North Korea has also lost its primary source of outside help: aid from South Korea and ethnic Koreans living in Japan known as the Chosen Soren. It is very likely that Kim is seeking investment and economic aid in the form of food, fertilizer and heavy fuel which China has provided in the past. China, which is sensitive to potential instability on its border, will most likely acquiesce.

What to Expect

Results from the multi-national forensic investigation team are anticipated in a matter of days.[29] If North Korea is implicated in an attack on the Cheonan, South Korea will need a strong, but measured response. The first step will most likely be a joint statement from the U.S. and South Korea condemning attack and reiterating the terms of their security agreement. Second, South Korea should report the attack to the UN Security Council. While sanctions have largely been exhausted, reporting the event will bring attention to the enforcement of existing sanctions, especially from neighbors like China.[30] Third, increased joint patrols to prevent a similar attack from happening are warranted. With increased fishing traffic in the Yellow Sea through July for the crab season, the odds of future encounters will be high, and cool heads must prevail.

Finally, the Six-Party Talks must not be abandoned. Conclusive forensic evidence of a North Korean attack will harden public opinion against further negotiations; however denuclearization should be stressed as the paramount goal. While the talks have not yet produced satisfactory results, they are the only vehicle in which North Korea is willing to participate. ROK president Lee faces pressure to indefinitely postpone the talks; however he should delink the matter from the denuclearization issue just as Japan should delink the abduction issue. China has secured a promise of cooperation from Kim Jong-il and holds powerful economic cards to bring that promise to fruition.


[1] "Chief Investigator Cites 'External Explosion' as Likely Cause of Naval Ship Sinking", Yonhap, 16 April 2010, in LexisNexis,
[2] Jae-soon Chang, "Gunpowder Detected in Sunken Ship Wreckage", Yonhap, 6 May 2010,; Eric Talmadge, "Clues Suggest NKorean Sub Behind Warship Attack," Associated Press, 10 May 2010,
[3] "'Non-contact Explosion' Most Likely Cause of Ship Sinking: Official", Yonhap, 26 April 2010, in LexisNexis,
[4] "'Non-contact Explosion' Most Likely Cause of Ship Sinking: Official", Yonhap, 26 April 2010, in LexisNexis,
[5] Lee Myung-bak, "Opening Remarks by President Lee Myung-bak at a Meeting with Top Commanders of the ROK Armed Forces", Cheong Wa Dae (Office of the President), 4 May 2010,
[6] Victor Cha, "The Sinking of the Cheonan", Center for Strategic and International Studies, 22 April 2010,
[7] The word 'accident' was used eleven times in the KCNA article. "Military Commentator Denies Involvement in Ship Sinking", KCNA, 17 April 2010,
[8] "'Non-contact Explosion' Most Likely Cause of Ship Sinking: Official", Yonhap, 26 April 2010, in LexisNexis,
[9] Lan Hong and Guang She, "WKP Secretary General Kim Jong-il Makes an Unofficial Visit to China" 朝鲜劳动党总书记金正日对我国进行非正式访问, Xinhua, 7 May 2010,
[10] Andrew Jacobs, "North Korean Leader Can't Avoid Scrutiny on a Stealth Trip to China", New York Times, 5 May 2010,
[11] "North Korean Leader Believed to be Heading Back Home", Yonhap, 6 May 2010,; Emma Graham-Harrison, "North Korean Leader's Train Leaves Beijing", Reuters, 6 May 2010,
[12] "Who is with Kim Jong-il on his China Trip?," Chosun Ilbo, 4 May 2010,
[13]Lan Hong and Guang She, "WKP Secretary General Kim Jong-il Makes an Unofficial Visit to China", 朝鲜劳动党总书记金正日对我国进行非正式访问, Xinhua, 7 May 2010,
[14] Donald Kirk, "North Korea Admits Drastic Currency Reform, is Silent on Protests", The Christian Science Monitor, 4 December 2010,
[15] "N. Korea Cleans Up Chinese Statements About Kim Jong-il's Visit" Chosun Ilbo, 10 May 2010,
[16] Lan Hong and Guang She, "WKP Secretary General Kim Jong-il Makes an Unofficial Visit to China", 朝鲜劳动党总书记金正日对我国进行非正式访问, Xinhua, 7 May 2010,
[17] "Kim Jong Il Makes Unofficial Visit to China", KCNA, 8 May 2010,
[18] Foster Klug, "US links SKorean Explosion to NKorean Nuke Talks", Associated Press, 10 May 2010,
[19] Park Chan-kyong, "No nuclear talks if N.Korea sank warship: S.Korea", Agence France-Presse, 20 April 2010,
[20] "Pres. Lee's Approval Rating Tops 50% Again", Arirang, 11 May 2010,
[21] "Korea-China Summit Touches on Cheonan Ship, FTA", Cheong Wa Dae (Office of the President), 1 May 2010,
[22] Kristen Chick, "South Korea's leader calls Cheonan warship sinking 'no accident'", Christian Science Monitor, 4 May 2010,
[23] "Defense Chief Blames 'Surprise Attack' for Ship Sinking, Calls it Day of Shame", Yonghap, 4 May 2010, via Lexis-Nexis.
[24] Eric Talmadge, "Clues Suggest NKorean Sub Behind Warship Attack", Associated Press, 10 May 2010,
[25] Donald Kirk, "North Korea Admits Drastic Currency Reform, is Silent on Protests", The Christian Science Monitor, 4 December 2010,
[26] In-ho Park, "Rice Prices Providing Social Barometer",, 21 April 2010,
[27] "DPRK Food Prices Unstable as Lean Season Approaches", NK Brief No. 10-04-28-1, The Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Kyungnam University, 28 April 2010,
[28] Bomi Lim, "North Korea's Food Aid Will Run Out Next Month, UN Agency Says", Bloomberg Businessweek, 3 May 2010,
[29] "U.S. Thinks North Sunk Cheonan, Sources Say", JoongAng Ilbo, 12 May 2010,
[30] Dan Pinkston, "Opinion: How to Approach North Korea", GlobalPost, 12 May 2010,

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