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Transitory or lingering impact? The legacies of the Cheonan incident in Northeast Asia.

On March 26, 2010, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) navy corvette Pec-722 Cheonan sank while conducting a patrol mission in the Yellow Sea just south of the Northern Limit Line near Baekryeong Island. As a result, forty-six out of 104 crew members were killed while fifty-eight were rescued. Following an investigation, a Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) consisting of experts from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, and South Korea, announced on May 20 that the Cheonan had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo attack. What changes has the Cheonan incident brought about in the Northeast Asia region? How and to what extent have those changes shifted over time?

The JIG's official report, instead of leading to a consensus view among South Koreans, sparked a debate over the cause of the incident. The already deep ideological chasm between conservatives and progressives in South Korean society worsened. The sinking of the Cheonan also further undermined inter-Korean relations and served as the catalyst for the emergence of a Cold War-like rivalry between the US-ROK-Japan and the China-North Korea-Russia blocs. Along with these changes in regional security dynamics, the tragic incident also exerted significant influence on interstate relations among neighboring countries in Northeast Asia. In the short run, the Cheonan sinking weakened China-ROK, US-DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea), and US-China relations, whereas it helped strengthen China-DPRK, US-ROK, US-Japan, and ROK-Japan relations. Further shifts have occurred since the incident as China-ROK relations have significantly improved while China-DPRK and ROK-Japan relations have notably worsened.

In this article, I first examine the widening ideological gap between conservatives and progressives in South Korea after the sinking of the navy ship by exploring the hotly contested points of the JIG's report. I then look into the impact of the Cheonan incident on Northeast Asian security relations and how and to what extent the changes produced by the incident have shifted over time.

The Ideological Divide in South Korea

A Catalyst for Deepening Mistrust

Ideological disputes between conservatives and progressives in South Korea are hardly new. Since the end of the Korean War, the two camps have mainly clashed over policies toward the DPRK and the security role of the United States. Conservatives give top priority to fostering a close partnership with the United States and maintaining vigilance against the threat from North Korea. Progressives, however, "radically oppose that narrative, seeing the North more as a kin nation with which to be reconciled and the United States as a disruptive interloper" (Chae and Kim 2008, 77).

This ideological divide became more evident after progressive President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2002) launched an engagement policy toward North Korea, called the Sunshine Policy. Conservative politicians, intellectuals, and media strongly opposed the Kim government's initiatives, criticizing him for not demanding reciprocal actions by the DPRK. President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2007), who inherited Kim's progressive legacy and continued the engagement policy, likewise endured harsh confrontation between the two ideological blocs. However, the scene changed dramatically when conservative President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008. Based on the principle of strict reciprocity, the Lee administration rejected the Sunshine Policy in favor of Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness. He stipulated, "If North Korea gets rid of nuclear weapons and pursues market economy reforms, South Korea would provide enough economic aid for the North to achieve 3000 USD per capita in 10 years" (Daily NK 2008). From the outset, the DPRK regime intensely opposed this conditional policy, as it was regarded as a means of absorbing the North into the South. In a similar vein, progressives in South Korea also criticized the policy for its unrealistic features, arguing that it would be implausible to expect the DPRK regime to first give up its nuclear weapons.

The Cheonan incident became the catalyst for widening the ideological division. Conservative forces fully supported the JIG report's conclusion on North Korean responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan. The report had three main findings. First, an external explosion of a torpedo ripped the ROK navy corvette in two; a shockwave and bubble effect produced by the underwater explosion contributed to the splitting of the ship. Second, the torpedo used in the incident was made by the DPRK. The report stated,
   The torpedo parts recovered at the site of the explosion perfectly
   match the schematics of the CHT-02D torpedo included in
   introductory brochures provided to foreign countries by North Korea
   for export purposes. The marking in Hangul, which reads 1bon (or
   No. 1 in English), found inside the end of the propulsion section,
   is consistent with the marking of a previously obtained North
   Korean torpedo. (1)

Third, a small North Korean submarine fired the torpedo, as "a few small submarines and a mother ship supporting them left a North Korean naval base in the West Sea 2-3 days prior to the attack and returned to port 2-3 days after the attack." Moreover, the report revealed that "all submarines from neighboring countries were either in or near their respective home bases at the time of the incident."

Based on these findings, the Lee Myung-bak government took harsh and punitive measures against the DPRK regime, including the shutdown of almost all inter-Korean trade. Speculating on the reasons for North Korea's attack, conservative commentators offered four possibilities. First, the DPRK may have been retaliating for its defeat in the Daechong clash of November 2009 (Bechtol 2010). (2) Second, the aggressive action may have been a form of coercive diplomacy: the Kim Jong-il regime may have wanted to push the Lee government to give up its hardline policies toward the North (Cha 2010). Third, the attack might have been undertaken to strengthen regime stability and its control over the North Korean people, since it occurred at a critical time for the North. The top leader, Kim Jong-il, was ill; food crises were continuing; markets were expanding; and the number of defectors was increasing (Chae 2010). Fourth, a leadership succession was in progress: Kim Jong-un, a son of Kim Jong-il, had suddenly become the designated successor after the elder Kim's debilitating stroke in August 2008. The regime desperately needed military-related achievements to bolster the transition from Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. The newly emerging young leader had no military background, and the military was the most powerful institution in North Korea since the adoption of "military-first politics" in the mid-1990s (Jeong 2010).

Running counter to such conservative reactions, progressive intellectuals and civil organizations such as the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) raised strong doubts about the credibility of the JIG report and investigative process. Their doubts stemmed from numerous inconsistencies in the report. One was the failure of the JIG's simulation to show how a bubble effect could have ripped the Cheonan in two. According to Jae-Jung Suh, "The simulation revealed only that the bubble hit the ship and caused a small rupture in the hull, but the bubble then began to shrink and showed no signs of breaking up" (Suh 2010, 408). Second was the finding that the low heat-tolerant blue ink marking of Hangul--the 1bon in Korean--in the recovered torpedo parts had not been burned while the high-heat-tolerant paint had been. A third question was how a small North Korean submarine had infiltrated an area with rapid water flows and returned after firing its torpedo. Fourth, why were the surviving South Korean sailors not severely injured despite a powerful underwater explosion?

Based on these issues, the PSPD published its Cheonan Issue Report I and II, showing that the JIG's findings failed to alleviate several strong doubts regarding the cause of the sinking (Ohmynews 2010). Although four years have passed since the Cheonan incident, progressive South Korean scholars and civil activists are still disputing the evidence that the investigation team provided (Hankyoreh 2013; personal interviews 2014, Seoul).

An open letter sent to the UN Security Council by the PSPD triggered another round of harsh confrontation between conservatives and progressives. Following the release of the JIG report, in June 2010 the ROK government requested the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution imposing sanctions on the DPRK regime for its attack on the Cheonan. The PSPD, having a consultative relationship with the United Nations, submitted a letter with its twenty-seven-page report asking for a review of documents submitted by both it and the ROK government. The Lee administration denounced the PSPD for "hindering diplomatic efforts by the government in pushing for an action of the UN Security Council to hold North Korea accountable for the Cheonan incident" (Forum-Asia 2010). Conservative groups such as the Korean Veterans Association launched a series of protest campaigns against the PSPD that included physical as well as verbal threats (Hankyoreh 2010). Progressives supported the PSPD's action, regarding it as a natural right of civil organizations.

This ideological clash in civil society also took place in the ROK National Assembly. The ruling Grand National Party issued a resolution that denounced North Korea for its attack on the Cheonan and described it as a serious crime in violation of inter-Korean agreements and international law. A major opposition party, the Democratic Party, however, did not implicate the DPRK regime as the culprit in its resolution. Instead, the Democratic Party demanded that both the ROK and DPRK governments resume dialogue as soon as possible in the spirit of the June 15 and October 4 North-South Joint Declarations (Choi 2011).

The Impact on North-South Relations

The impact of the Cheonan sinking is not limited to the deepening of the ideological chasm within South Korean society. The incident has exerted a consistently negative influence on the relationship between North Korea and South Korea. That relationship was already deteriorating in the wake of President Lee Myung-bak's inauguration in February 2008 and his refusal to maintain the engagement policy toward North Korea. President Lee believed the unconditional Sunshine Policy had failed to change North Korea's belligerent attitudes (Petrov 2008). But his substitute policy, Vision 3000, only further soured inter-Korean relations. Particularly detrimental to the relationship was an incident in which a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a DPRK soldier at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea on July 11, 2008 (The Guardian 2008). The incident dampened the atmosphere for resuming North-South dialogue, and the ROK government suspended all tourism trips to Kumgang--an important symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement initiated in 1998.

The Cheonan sinking naturally worsened inter-Korean relations even more. After the release of the JIG report, the ROK government harshly blamed the DPRK regime for its aggressive attack and adopted the so-called May 24 Measures. These included a complete ban on navigation by North Korean vessels in South Korea's territorial waters, suspension of inter-Korean trade and aid to the North, banning of South Koreans' visits to North Korea, and cessation of new investment in the North (New York Times 2010). (3) Furthermore, the Lee administration announced that it would restart psychological warfare by installing big speakers and electronic display boards around the Demilitarized Zone and dropping anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets over the DPRK. (4) At the United Nations, the ROK government pursued a Security Council resolution to authorize punitive action against North Korea. (5) Pyongyang expressed anger over these measures, which may have been responsible for its artillery attacks on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.

The May 24 Measures have been a constant barrier to improved relations between South Korea and North Korea. Both regimes have been stuck in a lingering situation that makes recovery and repair very difficult. Without a formal apology from Pyongyang for the Cheonan incident, Seoul cannot lift the May 24 Measures, which have been highly detrimental to South-North exchanges and cooperation. By the same token, Pyongyang, which has denied allegations surrounding the Cheonan sinking, cannot apologize for the naval attack because it would seriously damage its own pride. As of December 2014, therefore, despite strong requests from companies and progressives in the ROK to remove the sanctions against the DPRK, the current Park Geun-hye government is maintaining the punitive measures as well as the suspension of tourism trips to the Kumgang resort (Sputnik News 2014).

Short-Term Impact on Northeast Asian Security Relations

The Cheonan sinking also exerted significant influence on Northeast Asian security relations in the short run. With respect to regional security dynamics, the incident led to the emergence of a Cold War-like rivalry in the region between the two power blocs--US-ROK-Japan and China-DPRK-Russia (Cheong 2010). The United States and Japan naturally sided with the ROK in blaming the DPRK regime for its torpedo attack and in imposing harsh economic sanctions on the regime. However, China and Russia were very cautious when it came to determining who launched the attack, in spite of the JIG's findings. China and Russia were reluctant to impose economic sanctions on the North Korean regime. Additionally, the two nations cooperated to check and balance the US-ROK-Japan security cooperation.

China's Relations with the Two Koreas

The Cheonan sinking played a critical role in strengthening the relationship between China (People's Republic of China; PRC) and North Korea. The Chinese government had basically maintained an equivalent policy toward North Korea and South Korea since the end of the Cold War, as the former was vital to China in terms of its ideological and security interests while the latter was an important economic partner. In response to the Cheonan incident, however, the Chinese government could not help siding with the North Korean regime, although this action brought criticism--for not fulfilling its responsibility as a global power--from many countries (Jeon 2011). If China had joined the international community in imposing harsh economic sanctions on the DPRK regime, it could have triggered the demise of the already economically dysfunctional regime, which would have severely hurt Chinese interests (Kang 2010). In the case of a North Korean regime collapse, Beijing could face a massive inflow of North Korean refugees into Chinese territory. China also stands to lose North Korea as a buffer zone for fending off direct US influence. Beijing thus showed its support for North Korea more clearly than before and was reluctant to blame Pyongyang even after the Yeonpyeong shelling in November 2010 (Zhu 2010).

After the ROK adopted the May 24 Measures as a result of the Cheonan incident, North Korea became more dependent than ever on China. Before then, inter-Korean economic cooperation had steadily deepened thanks to President Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy toward North Korea that began in 1998. In particular, the Mount Kumgang tourism project and the Gaeseong Industrial Complex were major cash cows for the Kim Jong-il regime. Once the punitive economic sanctions were enacted, however, inter-Korean trade and cooperation significantly weakened, and the DPRK had to turn its attention to China for its survival. North Korea's trade reliance on China, which in 1999 was 25 percent, increased to 83 percent in 2011 (Daily NK 2010). In addition, President Hu Jintao's plan to develop the three provinces of Northeastern China made it possible for both nations to deepen their economic cooperation. When President Hu met Kim Jong-il in August 2010, Hu stated, "The two sides should advance trade and economic cooperation. China is ready to work for the growth of trade and economic cooperation on the principles of government guidance, major role of enterprises, market operation, win-win, and mutual benefits" (Beijing International 2010).

In contrast with the improved relations between China and the DPRK, China-ROK relations arguably reached their lowest point since diplomatic normalization in 1992. Prior to the Cheonan sinking, South Korea's rapidly growing economic ties with China led Seoul to cultivate a "strategic cooperative partnership" with the PRC in hopes of Chinese help in resolving the ROK's problems with North Korea (Chung 2012, 223-224). South Korean political leaders recognized that without strong Chinese support, it would be hard to persuade the DPRK regime to give up its nuclear and missile capabilities and achieve a peaceful Korean unification. But contrary to South Korean expectations, the PRC did not join the ROK in blaming the DPRK for the naval incident. Before the Cheonan incident, Beijing had criticized Pyongyang for its second nuclear test in May 2009 and two rounds of missile tests in July 2009. China's response to the Cheonan sinking made clear that, despite their deep economic interdependence, China-ROK relations were politically subordinate to China-DPRK relations (East Asia Institute 2010).

The ROK government demanded that China recognize North Korea as being responsible for the Cheonan tragedy. However, the PRC insisted that the case should be addressed in "an objective and fair manner," declining South Korean requests (Snyder and Byun 2010). When the Yeonpyeong shelling occurred, the Chinese stance remained the same, even though it was evident that the DPRK was responsible and had caused civilian casualties. A survey, conducted immediately after the Yeonpyeong shelling, showed that 92 percent of Korean respondents were dissatisfied with China's stance on the incident (Kim and Woo 2010).

US-ROK-DPRK Relations

The sinking of the Cheonan reaffirmed that the US-ROK security alliance was indispensable to both nations. The United States was very cautious at first, but it sharply criticized the DPRK once the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group issued its final report on May 20, 2010. The Barack Obama administration fully supported the results of the investigation and South Korea's punitive measures against North Korea. Following a US-ROK meeting of foreign ministers on May 26, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated,

The international, independent investigation was objective, the evidence overwhelming, the conclusion inescapable. This was an unacceptable provocation by North Korea, and the international community has a responsibility and a duty to respond. The measures that President Lee announced in his speech are prudent. They are absolutely appropriate, and they have the full support of the United States. (US Department of State 2010)

In a summit meeting with President Lee on June 26, 2010, President Obama called the US-ROK alliance a linchpin of Asian security and pledged to deter any acts of North Korean aggression (White House 2010a).

In addition, the US government joined the ROK government in seeking adoption of a UN resolution to punish the Kim Jong-il regime. Though their efforts did not succeed, the two nations increased the frequency and scope of their joint military training (Cha and Kim 2010). For instance, on July 25, 2010, the United States and South Korea launched a large-scale, four-day naval and air exercise in the East Sea (Sea of Japan). To send a strong message of deterrence to the DRPK, the first joint military exercise involved a US aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, as well as twenty other ships and submarines, 200 aircraft, and 8,000 military personnel from both countries. In August 2010, the two countries also conducted the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, a computer-based simulation involving 56,000 ROK and 30,000 US troops, and joint antisubmarine military exercises in the Yellow Sea in September 2010. Furthermore, Obama signed an executive order to sanction the DPRK Special Reconnaissance Division and its commander, Kim Yong-chol, who was allegedly responsible for the Cheonan incident (Kim 2010). In addition, the two governments postponed until December 2015 the transfer of the US wartime operational command to the Korean military (Klinger 2010). All these actions strengthened US-ROK relations but further damaged US-DPRK relations.

US-China Relations

Prior to the Cheonan incident, US-China relations had been deteriorating as the two countries disputed the currency exchange rate and sovereignty issues in the South China Sea. The US government blamed the PRC for its intentional devaluing of the Chinese yuan, which significantly increased the US trade deficit. In addition, China projected its power in the South China Sea by claiming sovereignty over the disputed islands despite weak evidence for its position. This aggressive posture heightened tensions with Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines. In response, the United States enhanced its military presence in the region, thereby seeking to check and balance the expansion of Chinese power. Added to this growing tension was the resumption of US arms sales to Taiwan (Christian Science Monitor 2010). When the United States authorized $6.4 billion in weapons sales to Taiwan in January 2010, the PRC threatened to retaliate against US companies involved in the arms sales and suspended contacts between the two countries' militaries.

The Cheonan sinking intensified US-China tensions. China, as mentioned, embraced the Kim Jong-il regime and attempted to check the strengthening linkage between the United States and South Korea. For instance, while the cause of the Cheonan tragedy was under international discussion, the PRC invited Kim Jong-il to China, and from May 3 to May 5, 2010, signed agreements for political and economic cooperation (Choi and Park 2010). Washington was frustrated with China's insistence on "calm and restraint" when dealing with North Korea, as reflected in President Obama's remarks at the G-20 summit in Toronto in June 2010: "There is a difference between restraint and willful blindness to consistent problems" (White House 2010b). For its part, Beijing vehemently opposed US military actions in East Asia. In particular, China regarded the US-ROK joint military drills as a security threat, since they included the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington deployed in the Yellow Sea, very close to Chinese shores (Lee 2010).

US-Japan Relations

The Cheonan incident was a catalyst for bridging a widening gap in US-Japan relations. The Democratic Party of Japan ended the Liberal Democratic Party's almost uninterrupted rule in the postwar years by taking power in lower-house elections in August 2009. Distinguishing itself from the Liberal Democratic Party, which had given top priority to relations with the United States, the Democratic Party of Japan's election campaign emphasized putting the US-Japan alliance on an equal footing and pursuing an independent foreign policy (Asahi Shimbun 2012b). Democratic Party of Japan leaders promised that they would focus diplomacy on relations not only with the United States but also with neighboring Asian countries such as China and the ROK. In addition, Hatoyama Yukio, the new Democratic Party of Japan prime minister, pledged to move the controversial US Marine Corps Air Station in Futenma outside Okinawa Prefecture. This promise contradicted the 2006 US-Japan agreement to relocate the Futenma air base to a different location within Okinawa. Thus, the United States and Japan were experiencing a downturn in relations at the time of the Cheonan sinking.

The suddenness of the sinking reversed that trend. Following the alleged North Korean attack, the Hatoyama government reaffirmed the US-Japan security alliance as the linchpin of Japanese foreign and security policy. He retreated from his original aims and decided that the Futenma base could be moved to another location in Okinawa (Kim 2011). Hatoyama's broken vow started a rapid erosion of voter confidence in the Democratic Party of Japan.

ROK-Japan Relations

ROK-Japan political relations improved starting in early 2008. On February 25, 2008, following Lee Myung-bak's inauguration as president of South Korea, a summit meeting was held with Japanese prime minister Fukuda Takeo. They agreed to take a future-oriented approach toward historical issues that had bedeviled ROK-Japan relations (Kang and Lee 2008). In a speech commemorating Korean Independence Day, Lee emphasized pragmatic diplomacy rather than continue to demand Japanese apologies, as former president Roh Moo-hyun had, over colonization of Korea and World War II aggression. President Lee thus did not take a harsh stance on historical issues until August 2011, when the Korean Constitutional Court decided that the failure of the ROK government to act on the comfort women issue was unconstitutional (Etsuro 2013). The Democratic Party of Japan, under Prime Minister Hatoyama, also adopted a conciliatory policy toward its East Asian neighbors. Besides proclaiming that he would not visit the Yasukuni Shrine for Japan's war dead, Hatoyama also proposed moving the memorial tablets of the fourteen class-A war criminals buried in Yasukuni to another, less controversial location (Yang and Lim 2010).

The Cheonan incident also promoted security cooperation between the ROK and Japan. Since the sinking occurred at a time of an uncertain leadership transition in North Korea, the ROK and Japan sought to work cooperatively against North Korea's military threats and any unexpected contingences (Snyder and Byun 2011). North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong further accelerated the necessity of ROK-Japan defense cooperation. Thus, in January 2011 the two nations began negotiations on intelligence sharing and acquisitions (China Daily 2011). In June 2012, as a consequence of these efforts, the two governments, after a series of back-door negotiations, agreed to sign a military pact. The pact included both an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The ACSA stipulated a reciprocal arrangement of services and supplies when conducting overseas peacekeeping operations (Moon 2012). At the time of its signing, some sources predicted that the GSOMIA would contribute to the operation of a US-led missile defense system by increasing the sharing of classified military data (New York Times 2012a). The South Korean and Japanese governments were scheduled to sign the military intelligence pact on June 29, 2012, but they eventually put it on hold due to the outcry of Koreans, whose anti-Japanese sentiment and concerns about Japan's remilitarization remained strong (CNN 2012).

Rapidly Shifting Security Relations in Northeast Asia

The changes that the Cheonan incident brought about in Northeast Asian security relations have again significantly shifted. Three changed interstate relationships are particularly important. The first is the deterioration of China-DPRK relations since late 2012. Despite China's strong warnings, the DPRK regime proceeded with a long-range missile launch in December 2012 and then conducted its third nuclear weapon test in February 2013. Immediately after the nuclear test, China foreign minister Yang Jiechi summoned the North Korean ambassador to China and said, "China was strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to the test. We strongly urge the DPRK to honor its commitment to denuclearization and refrain from any move that may further worsen the situation" (Xinhua News 2013). Beijing University's Jia Qingguo commented, "Chinese media carried editorials and essays expressing frustration and opposition to the North Korean action--even the Global Times, known for its critical stance against the West, issued an editorial arguing that China should reduce aid to North Korea and that if Pyongyang is not happy, so be it" (Jia 2013). In addition, the PRC approved the UN Security Council's resolution to impose tougher economic sanctions on North Korea than ever before (New York Times 2013a).

Tensions on the Korean peninsula escalated dramatically in March and April 2013. In response to UN sanctions and joint USROK military exercises, the DPRK regime made a series of bellicose threats. The Kim Jong-un regime cut off all military hotlines between North Korea and South Korea and ordered missile units to be ready to attack the US mainland and South Korea. The Korean People's Army even annulled the armistice agreement that had ended the Korean War in 1953 and declared the peninsula under warlike conditions. For its part, North Korea shut down the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, the last remaining inter-Korean joint economic development zone (Ku 2013).

The Obama administration also contributed to the escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Responding to North Korea's threats, the Pentagon provocatively flew B-52 and B-2 bombers into South Korea and expanded its antiballistic missile systems in Asia, though the latter were intended primarily to deter China. Chinese leaders, who have placed great emphasis on regional stability, became seriously concerned about the destabilizing consequences of provocative actions from North Korea for East Asia's (as well as China's) economy and security.

In addition to these developments, the DPRK supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, suddenly purged his uncle Jang Sung-taek in December 2013. Jang had been North Korea's second-in-command and a key liaison between the DPRK and the PRC. He was executed for being a "traitor to the nation for all ages who perpetrated antiparty, counterrevolutionary factional acts in a bid to overthrow the leadership of [the Korean Workers'] party and state and the socialist system," among other crimes (Korea Central News Agency 2013). Among the charges in Jang's indictment was that "he sold off precious resources of the country at cheap prices," an implicit criticism of China inasmuch as Jang had been in charge of economic relations with China, including the establishment of special economic zones between the PRC and the DPRK (Symonds 2013). Chinese leaders viewed him as "the necessary counterbalance to the young, inexperienced, rash and even brazenly insolent Kim" (Beauchamp-Mustafaga 2014, 2). The sudden purge and execution of Jang was highly disturbing to Chinese leaders, though they officially considered it a North Korean internal affair. China's distancing of relations with Pyongyang may explain why the DPRK, at the end of 2014, was striving to enhance its ties with Russia (Tiezzi 2014).

The second major regional shift is the significant improvement of China-ROK relations, in contrast with the tensions that followed the Cheonan incident. The Obama administration's so-called rebalance toward Asia may account for the PRC's interest in improving ties with South Korea. With its enhanced economic and military confidence, China in the early 2010s began to take more assertive actions than before in addressing South China Sea and East China Sea maritime disputes (Washington Post 2014). China claimed sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea area based on the so-called nine dashed lines (Keyuan 2012; O'Rourke 2014). The Chinese navy dispatched patrol vessels to the disputed areas much more often than before, heightening tensions with neighboring countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. In the East China Sea, which embraces the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that are in dispute with Japan, China in November 2013 declared a new Air Defense Identification Zone. There, too, China increased the frequency of patrols (Osawa 2013).

These assertive Chinese actions prompted US countermoves. Washington has augmented its military presence in Asia despite a significant decrease in its overall military budget (Washington Post 2013). In November 2011, the United States and Australia agreed to deploy 2,500 US marines in Australia as part of a strategy to confront more directly the challenge posed by China's rise (New York Times 2011). In June 2012, the Obama administration announced that it would deploy as many as four littoral combat ships to Singapore starting in 2013 (The Strategist 2012). Furthermore, in a meeting held in October 2013, the foreign affairs and defense chiefs of the United States and Japan agreed to revise bilateral defense cooperation guidelines by the end of 2014 to address rising threats in the Asia Pacific region (Japan Times 2013). They promised to enhance cooperation in ballistic missile defense, cybersecurity, and the safe use of outer space. With the Philippines, eight rounds of negotiations led to the signing in April 2014 of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which augmented the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (Thayer 2014). US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar for the first time in more than a half century to restore that relationship at a time when Myanmar leaders were reportedly having misgivings about too close a relationship with China (Huffington Post 2011). And with Vietnam, the United States reached an agreement to deepen military ties in five key areas, including maritime security, search and rescue operations, and peacekeeping operations (The Hill 2012).

Many Chinese leaders believe that this US pivot to Asia is intended to encircle and contain China, although the Obama administration has repeatedly denied this intention. The PRC has thus paid great attention to improving its relationship with South Korea, with which it shares a common historical antagonism toward Japan (Hwang 2014). To this end, Beijing has taken two symbolic actions: the construction in January 2014 of a memorial in China for the Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun, and an official visit by President Xi Jinping to the ROK in July 2014. The ROK government had since 2006 been requesting the establishment of a monument for Ahn, who assassinated Ito Hirobumi, the first Japanese resident-general of Korea. However, the PRC had declined this request out of consideration for Japan's opposition. Thus, the opening of the memorial was clearly meant to pressure Japan by demonstrating increasing cooperation with South Korea (Korea Joongang Daily 2014). Xi's visit to South Korea was unprecedented--a top Chinese leader visiting the South before visiting the North. President Park and President Xi have held five summits since they took office in early 2013, in stark contrast with the absence of any summit meetings between Park and Abe Shinzo.

The third significant shift is the deterioration of ROK-Japan relations. A series of actions taken by Lee Myung-bak in August 2012 triggered the downturn. He abruptly visited the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, using Japan as a scapegoat to restore his declining domestic popularity (New York Times 2012b). One Japanese scholar argues that Lee's move infuriated the Japanese people, who believe that neighboring countries such as China, Russia, and the ROK had carried out more aggressive actions than previously on territorial issues, taking advantage of a weak-kneed Democratic Party of Japan (personal interview 2014, Tokyo). (6) In response to Japan's strong resistance--in particular, asking the ROK government to bring the territorial dispute to the International Court of Justice--President Lee commented that Japan's influence in the international community was not as powerful as it once was (Korea Times 2012). Although the Japanese government showed no interest in having Emperor Akihito visit South Korea, President Lee remarked that the emperor would be unwelcome in South Korea without a direct acknowledgment of guilt for Japan's colonial rule over the Korean peninsula (Asahi Shimbun 2012a). Lee's abrupt actions unnecessarily stirred up anti-Korean sentiment among the Japanese, thus exerting a negative influence on ROK-Japan relations.

More importantly, the emergence of the second Abe administration has enabled China and the ROK to foster their stronger relationship. In December 2013, Prime Minister Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, despite knowing fully well how neighboring countries would react to this symbol of Japan's past aggression (CNN 2013). While taking an unapologetic stance on the issue of comfort women, in June 2014 the Abe administration announced that the so-called Kono Statement of 1993, which for the first time acknowledged Japan's involvement in the forced mobilization of Asian women for the Imperial Army, was made by a political compromise between the Japanese and South Korean governments. This act undermined the apologetic spirit of the Kono Statement (Japan Times 2014).

The Abe government has also sought to make Japanese history textbooks and education more patriotic by attempting to revise textbook screening standards and teacher practice manuals for school curriculum guidelines. The aim is to include nationalist views of World War II-era history in school textbooks and underscore the government's position that the disputed Dokdo/ Takeshima and Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are indigenous territories of Japan (New York Times 2013b; Takahashi 2014). This same nationalist stance applies to Article 9 of Japan's peace constitution. In July 2014, the Abe government reinterpreted the war-renouncing Article 9 to permit Japan to take part in collective defense operations. Japan may now come to the aid of an ally that is under armed attack (The Guardian 2014).

Abe's historical revisionism made it easy for the PRC and the ROK to form a cooperative network against Japan. As a result, the Cold War-like rivalry between the US-ROK-Japan and China-DPRK-Russia blocs, which appeared to emerge in the wake of the Cheonan sinking, has dissipated. The latter bloc has not worked well due to the deterioration of China-DPRK relations starting in late 2012, while the former bloc has not worked well thanks to the improvement of China-ROK relations and the deterioration of ROK-Japan relations.


The Cheonan incident has had a lingering impact on South Korean society and inter-Korean relations. The incident fostered mutual distrust between conservatives and progressives during the investigation of the cause of the sinking, thus broadening the existing ideological split in South Korea, because the JIG's evidence was not sufficient to prove unequivocally that the DPRK was responsible for the attack. Furthermore, the JIG's critics' findings could not establish that North Korea did not torpedo the Cheonan. The sinking of the Cheonan also caused a sharp deterioration in inter-Korean relations, becoming a serious obstacle to their future improvement.

Besides its lingering impact on the Korean peninsula, the sinking of the Cheonan was the catalyst for the short-lived emergence of a Cold War-like rivalry between the US-ROK-Japan and the China-DPRK-Russia blocs. Moreover, the Cheonan incident exerted a significant influence on interstate relations among neighboring countries in Northeast Asia. The sinking weakened China-ROK, US-DPRK, and US-China relations, while it contributed to the strengthening of China-DPRK, US-ROK, US-Japan, and ROK-Japan relations. Not long after these changes, however, further shifts have occurred: China-ROK relations have significantly improved while China-DPRK and ROK-Japan relations have notably worsened.

The Cheonan incident may continue to hinder the construction of a harmonious society in the ROK. Although four years have passed since the event, controversies over its cause still loom large in South Korean society. It seems implausible to expect an end to the controversies without the release of more decisive evidence. The Cheonan incident may even become a symbol for mutual mistrust and antagonism between conservatives and progressives in South Korea. It has prevented the South from restoring its soured relationship with the North, as it would be hard for the conservative ROK government to repeal the May 24 Measures without resolving the Cheonan situation. This unresolved issue also discourages regional actors from resuming multilateral or bilateral dialogues to address North Korean problems, such as its nuclear and missile adventurism. As a single event, therefore, the sinking of the Cheonan has left many negative legacies in its wake.


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(1.) For the explanations in detail, see the JIG report titled "Investigation Result on the Sinking of the ROKS Cheonan,"

(2.) When a North Korean vessel crossed the disputed Northern Limit Line, a South Korean naval vessel fired warning shots at the approaching ship, which returned fire. The South Korean ship then turned its guns on the DPRK naval vessel and fired a barrage directly at the ship. The DPRK vessel was reported to have been heavily damaged in the exchange and retreated back to North Korean waters.

(3.) There were a few exceptions to these strict policy measures. For instance, the ROK government continued pure humanitarian aid for vulnerable groups of people, such as infants and young children, in addition to maintaining the Gaeseong Industrial Complex just across the Demilitarized Zone in North Korea.

(4.) Since the DPRK regime posed a strong threat of retaliation in response to this measure, the ROK government did not take any actual action.

(5.) The ROK government pursued the adoption of a UN resolution to punish North Korea, but its efforts culminated in adoption of a weak presidential statement due to China's reluctance and threat of a veto. The statement criticized the Cheonan sinking, but did not directly refer to North Korea as the responsible party.

(6.) In September 2010, for instance, China exerted pressure on the Japanese government by restricting exports of rare earths after Japan arrested the captain of a Chinese trawler that rammed two Japanese coast guard patrol boats off the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Also Russian president Dmitry Medvedev made the first visit by a Russian leader to the disputed Kuril Islands in November 2010.

Yangmo Ku is assistant professor of political science and director of the International Studies Program at Norwich University. His research focuses on the politics of memory and reconciliation in East Asia and Europe, East Asian security, economic reform in communist states, and US foreign policy making. His research has appeared in the Journal of East Asian Studies (forthcoming), Pacific Focus, Asian Perspective, the Yale Journal of International Affairs, and the Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society, as well as in an edited volume, The Routledge Handbook of Memory and Reconciliation in East Asia (forthcoming). He can be reached at
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