It’s been four years since the infamous Cheonan incident.  On the fourth anniversary of the Cheonan incident on March 26, 2014, the South Korean government held a memorial service dedicated to the Cheonan soldiers at the Daejeon National Cemetery .  Five thousand people, including Prime Minister Jeong Hong-won and other government officials, notable military figures, ruling and opposition party leaders, ordinary citizens, and military personnel were in attendance.  It rained during the entire event – as if the heavens were mourning the forty-six soldiers who died onboard the Cheonan.

Unified Progressive Party Representative Oh Byeong-yun, who had gone to attend the memorial service, was turned back by bereaved family members blocking the memorial hall entrance.    “He cannot be allowed to attend the service before clarifying his party’s position on the Cheonan attack,” said the family members.  “This is not the appropriate situation to discuss the party’s position,” said Representative Oh as he retreated.  The family members want the Unified Progressive Party to declare as its official party position that North Korea is to blame for the Cheonan incident.

The Unified Progressive Party has always criticized the South Korean government’s position that a North Korean torpedo attack sank the Cheonan.  Despite this difference in how they view the incident, the Unified Progressive Party went to the memorial service to pay its respect to the deceased.

The Unified Progressive Party is not the only one that raised doubts about the then Lee Myung-bak administration’s ‘North Korean torpedo attack’ theory.  According to a September 14, 2010 survey conducted right after the release of the government’s final investigation report, 47.8% of respondents said they trust the government finding but 40% said they do not.  Only 57.2% believed the cause of the sinking was due to a North Korean torpedo attack.  Even today, South Korean society remains divided on the cause of the Cheonan sinking.  There is of course the official government position, but half of South Korean citizens do not believe it represents the truth.

Despite this, the Cheonan incident on March 26, 2010 became the cause of major shifts in South Korean society.

First, using the Cheonan incident as justification, the former Lee Myung-bak administration rolled back the previous decade of north-south cooperation and began a new era of anti-north hostility.  Only two months after the Cheonan incident on May 24, 2010, the Lee Myung-bak administration announced sanctions against the north.  The ‘May 24 Measures’ on North Korea include five types of sanctions, including a complete suspension of all north-south trade; suspension of all new investments in North Korea; ban on South Korean travel to the north (with the exception of Kaesong and Keumgansan); postponement of all aid projects (with the exception of humanitarian aid); and a ban on encroachment of North Korean ships in South Korean waters.

Such measures completely contradicted the June 15, 2000 and the October 4, 2007 North-South joint declarations and overturned the policy of north-south exchange and cooperation pursued by the previous Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.

Second, the Cheonan incident provided an opportunity for reactionary anti-north forces to grow rampant in South Korea.  The former Lee Myung-bak administration cracked down on political figures, civic organizations, and individuals who publicly questioned the government position on the Cheonan incident by investigating them on grounds of National Security Law violation.

In this atmosphere, the conservative media and organizations didn’t hesitate to red bait and publicly threaten politicians, civic groups and individuals.  Bands of uniformed anti-north protesters terrorized civic organizations; some grabbed activists by the collar, and some yelled into loudspeakers, “Internal enemy, go back to Pyeongyang!”  Others threatened them by hurling potentially explosive gas tanks.

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For the former Lee Myung-bak administration and South Korea’s right, how one sees the Cheonan incident became the standard for determining whether one is “pro-north.”  If you don’t trust the Lee Myung-bak government’s findings on the incident, you can immediately be branded a “North Korea sympathizer.”  Since the Cheonan incident, the conservative South Korean government and reactionary forces employ red baiting as their tactic of choice for repressing and threatening their opponents.

Third, the Cheonan incident continues to shackle north-south dialogue even under the Park Geun-hye administration.  President Park famously declared, “Reunification is a jackpot” earlier this year and pledged to pursue north-south exchange and cooperation.  But unless the aforementioned May 24 Measures are lifted, north-south exchange and cooperation are impossible.

A South Korean Ministry of Unification spokesperson announced on March 24, “The government has not discussed the lifting of the May 24 Measures,” and “The north has taken no responsible measures to admit and apologize for its misdeed nor has it reprimanded those responsible.”  In other words, without an admission of guilt and an apology from the north regarding the Cheonan incident, north-south exchange and cooperation are impossible.  If the Park Geun-hye administration adheres to this position, it’s hard to expect any progress in north-south relations in the near future.

On March 26, the north announced a memorandum in the name of the National Defense Commission State Security Department regarding the Cheonan incident.  The National Defense Commission State Security Department reaffirmed its position that it had no hand in the Cheonan incident and insisted that the Cheonan incident should no longer be an obstacle to north-south relations.  Below is a Korea Central News Agency article reporting on the memorandum.

NDC Inspection Team Demands End to Vicious Cycle of Confrontation Caused by “Cheonan” Warship Sinking Case

Pyongyang, March 26 (KCNA) — The inspection team of the National Defence Commission (NDC) of the DPRK released a memorandum Wednesday four years since the occurrence of the “Cheonan” warship sinking case.

The memorandum clarifies from the objective viewpoint the facts that have so far been disclosed since the occurrence of the case as the present south Korean authorities are beating the worn-out drum of escalating confrontation with fellow countrymen just as the previous regime did.

Noting that the inside story about the hideous farce is being brought to light with the passage of time, the memorandum goes on:

There occurred in waters off Paekryong Islet and Taechong Islet in the West Sea of Korea an incident in which south Korean warship “Cheonan” was broken into two parts for no specific reason at around 21:00 on March 26, 2010.

The then Lee Myung Bak regime made public so-called “results of investigation” on May 20, about 50 days after the incident, and the “final report” in September.

The conclusion was that the ship was sunken by a torpedo of the DPRK.

But as soon as the story about the “torpedo attack by the north” was spread, it drew strong public criticism. The public called it a “collection of all kinds of suspicions” and a “far-fetched assertion based on a strange logic”.

Censure and jeers came not only from south Korea but from the U.S., the center for making the hostile policy toward the DPRK, and other western countries.

Some south Korean media said that “all those media that use such phrase as sinking of ‘Cheonan’ by explosion are sham media.”

The more water flows under the bridge since the case and the more vociferous the south Korean authorities become in floating the story about “the north’s involvement in the case,” the more strongly the public will be convinced that the north has nothing to do with the case and the greater the suspicions and distrust will become in the false story spread by them, the memorandum notes.

Recalling that the case has been misused for escalating the confrontation between the north and the south, the memorandum stresses that the DPRK has consistently made every sincere effort to probe the truth about the case and improve the inter-Korean relations.

It says:

Right after the sinking of the ship, the U.S. built up the public opinion to create impression that the army of the DPRK was involved in the case and asserted that the south Korean authorities’ investigation has considerable credibility and that it extends full support to the report on the “attack by the north’s torpedo”, thereby inciting hostility toward the north and kicking off a campaign for hard-line confrontation.

When the south Korean authorities made public the results of investigation into the “Cheonan” sinking case, the U.S. issued its statements in support of them and when Lee Myung Bak made public a “statement to the people”, the U.S. clarified its stand of backing it.

As the north-south relations which had been put at peril further deteriorated after the “Cheonan” case, the DPRK made every possible effort to tide over the serious phase and pave a wide avenue for national unity, peace and reunification.

The DPRK proposed dispatching a NDC inspection team to the scene of the incident and holding north-south high-level military talks and the DPRK-U.S. military general-level talks in Panmunjom. But all these proposals ended up in failure.

The DPRK, however, continued its efforts to settle the warship case and set right the north-south relations issue at any cost despite manifold difficulties and obstacles.

Calling for a definite end to the vicious cycle of confrontation with compatriots caused by the above-said case, the memorandum goes on:

The south Korean authorities should take a policy decision to accept all the proposals so far made by the DPRK for the settlement of the warship sinking case, if they truly want the improved north-south relations.

First, the south Korean authorities should unconditionally accept the NDC inspection team, make probe into the truth about the case and make it public if they are still set to continue to peddle the “story about the north’s involvement” in the “Cheonan” case.

We are ready to send the existing investigation team of the NDC to south Korea even now and have the will to produce all evidence proving the case in Panmunjom or other place agreed upon and clearly probe the truth about it in the eyes of the world.

Whether the truth about the case remains buried into oblivion for good or will be probed entirely depends on the attitude of the south Korean authorities.

The south Korean authorities should show its will in practice to reveal the inside story about the confrontation with fellow countrymen based on conspiratorial plots and fabrications, not just uttering a string of honeyed words calling for building confidence and developing north-south relations through dialogue between the two sides.

Second, if they are still not in a position to accept the NDC inspection team, they should give formal assurances that they would not spread the “story about the north’s involvement” any more.

If the south Korean authorities persist in such anti-DPRK confrontation hysteria as the “Cheonan” warship case, defying our just demands, they will be cursed as the same group as Lee Myung Bak’s which was known in the history of the nation as chief architect of the hideous conspiratorial case and a horde of confrontation and anti-reunification maniacs without equals.

It is our invariable stand that they should accept the demand of the DPRK to clarify various suspicions concerning the warship case from a fair stand or they should not peddle the “story about the north’s involvement” any more.

Third, the present south Korean authorities should break with the inglorious past as demanded by the times and the nation wishing for the improved north-south relations.

They should not allow the case to remain an artificial hurdle lying in the way of improving the inter-Korean relations any longer and a stumbling block in the way of defusing the tension.

They should take a bold decision of lifting all the confrontational measures such as the “May 24 step against the north” taken by the Lee Myung Bak regime as regards the “Cheonan” case if they stand for the improvement of the north-south relations and the national reconciliation and unity.

The south Korean authorities should show their will to shape a wise policy as required by the times and the nation, away from the anachronistic way of thinking.