Such questions are being fueled by suggestions in the South Korean and Japanese media that the naval exercise was intended to provoke the North to attack. The resulting public outcry in the South, according to this analysis, would bolster support for a conservative government in Seoul that is opposed to reconciliation efforts.
As fanciful as it may sound to Western ears, the case that OperationFoal Eagle was designed to provoke the North has been underscored by constant references in regional media to charts showing the location where the ship was sunk — in waters close to, and claimed by, North Korea.
“Baengnyeong Island is only 20 kilometers from North Korea in an area that the North claims as its maritime territory, except for the South Korean territorial sea around the island,” Japanese journalist Tanaka Sakai wrote in the left-leaning Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus.
He called the sinking of the ship “an enigma.”
“The Cheonan was a patrol boat whose mission was to survey with radar and sonar the enemy’s submarines, torpedoes, and aircraft … ” Sakai wrote.
“If North Korean submarines and torpedoes were approaching, the Cheonan should have been able to sense it quickly and take measures to counterattack or evade. Moreover, on the day the Cheonan sank, US and ROK military exercises were under way, so it could be anticipated that North Korean submarines would move south to conduct surveillance. It is hard to imagine that the Cheonan sonar forces were not on alert.”
The liberal Hankyoreh newspaper in Seoul echoed a similar theme.
“A joint South Korean-U.S. naval exercise involving several Aegis warships was underway at the time, and the Cheonan was a patrol combat corvette (PCC) that specialized in anti-submarine warfare. The question remains whether it would be possible for a North Korean submarine to infiltrate the maritime cordon at a time when security reached its tightest level and without detection by the Cheonan,” it reported.
American spy satellites were also monitoring the exercise, “so the U.S. would have known that North Korean submarines had left their ports on a mission,” adds Scott Snyder, director of Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation.
“The route the North Korean submarines apparently took was from the East Sea, not directly from the North across the NLL,” or Northern Limit Line, the sea boundary unilaterally imposed by Seoul. “Essentially, they went the roundabout way and came at the ROK vessel from behind,” he said.
But Bruce Klingner, chief of the CIA’s Korea Branch in the 1990s, said “anti-submarine operations are far more difficult than is often realized.