What Was the Cheonan Doing in Treacherous Waters?

      April 02, 2010 12:43

      What was the Cheonan doing in the shallow and rapidly flowing waters near Baeknyeong Island before it sank due to an unexplained explosion on March 26? The military says patrol ships operate only in areas designated by the upper command, and the waters where the ship sank are within normal operating areas of the Cheonan.

      But that does not explain what it was doing there. Since being appointed to the helm of Cheonan in August of 2008, Caption Choi Won-il is said to have passed that region about a dozen times, or twice a month on average over the last 20 months.

      This has led to speculation that the Cheonan was on some kind of mission or conducting a reconnaissance run following detection of unusual activity by North Korea in the area. Supporting those claims is the fact that some crewmembers were talking to their family members by mobile phone at around 9:15 p.m. Friday night, just before the ship began to sink, and abruptly ended their calls telling them an "emergency" had arisen. There is also the fact that the warship Sokcho, which was near the Cheonan, fired a 76 mm cannons toward the north just after the blast.

      But the accounts of survivors and announcements made by the military indicate the Cheonan was not on a classified mission when it began to sink. Some of the sailors were not dressed in battle gear but in normal clothes or underwear when they were rescued. The military in a briefing Thursday said the Cheonan was sailing in waters close to Baeknyeong Island, in order to "use peacetime conditions to familiarize itself with geographical vantage points to deal with any North Korean attack in the future." In other words, the Cheonan was navigating those waters to practice patrol runs in preparation for a North Korean missile or artillery attack.

      An official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, "More flexibility was granted in terms of operational area this time" compared to the past when those routes were not usually included.

      There were also claims that the Cheonan had been escaping high waves or bad weather. Defense Minister Kim Tae-young suggested to reporters on Wednesday that the Cheonan may have been on an escape course on the fateful night.

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