In The News

The Cheonan Incident and its Impact on Regional Security

September 1, 2010

I spent last week at several meetings in Tokyo, Seoul, and Jeju that revolved around the Cheonan incident and its implications for regional security. The Lee Myung-Bak administration got high marks for its handling of the immediate aftermath of the incident. It is important to remember that in the hours following the Cheonan’s sinking on March 26th, there was no rush to judgment, but rather a deliberate decision to mount an international investigation of the incident. The day after the sinking, Yonhap quoted a South Korean senior official as saying that chances are “slim” that North Korea was involved. It was not until the back end of the ship was raised that the lead investigator announced on April 16 the likelihood that an “external explosion” caused the incident, shifting speculation in the direction of North Korean responsibility for the sinking. The next day North Korea denied its involvement. Lee’s cautious approach and the establishment of an international investigating team won strong support from the United States. Meanwhile, the PRC foreign ministry spokesman did not offer condolences on the loss of the sailors involved with the incident until April 22.

While the United States viewed Lee Myung-Bak’s handling of the incident as sober and self-contained, China viewed South Korea’s response as an emotional over-reaction, in part because of South Korean outrage over the Chinese decision to host Kim Jong Il in Beijing in early May, less than a week following Hu Jintao’s meeting with Lee Myung-Bak on April 30th at the opening of the Shanghai Expo. During that exchange, China did not inform South Korea’s leadership of its plan to host Kim Jong Il. This was the first evidence of South Korean misjudgment regarding its leverage and China’s response to the sinking of the Cheonan.

Read the full piece on the Council on Foreign Relations blog Asia Unbound.

Scott Snyder directs The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. He can be reached at

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