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In 2010, North Korea Sank a South Korean Warship. 40 Sailors Died Tragically.

In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean warship, killing more than forty sailors. The bold attack, conducted in secret by submarine, was the deadliest incident between the two countries in decades. Although Pyongyang’s involvement was suspected from the outset, an international commission set up to investigate the attack later conclude North Korea was indeed responsible.

On the night of March 26, 2010 the Republic of Korean Navy corvette ROKS Cheonan was on patrol off the coast of Baengnyeong Island. The Cheonan was a Pohang-class corvette, designed for coastal patrol duties. North Korea had instigated several ship-to-ship skirmishes with South Korean naval forces in the West Sea, and the Pohang was a large ship capable of decisively taking on smaller, weaker North Korean gunboats.

South Korea built twenty-four Pohang-class ships, divided between anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare variants. Cheonan, an anti-submarine ship, was 289 feet long, displaced 1,200 tons and had a typical crew of ninety-five. Her armament included a bow-mounted Oto Melara 76mm rapid fire gun, the same kind used by the U.S. Navy on the Oliver Hazard Perry–class guided missile frigates, four Harpoon anti-ship missiles, six Mk.46 anti-submarine torpedoes and depth charges.

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On the day of the incident, ROK Navy’s Second Fleet Command warned the Cheonan that a North Korean submarine and six support vessels had disappeared from the port city of Nampo. Located twenty miles southwest of Pyongyang, Nampo is a major hub of North Korean naval activity, including submarine, gunboat and armed hovercraft bases.

Later that evening, at 9:22pm local time there was explosion at the stern of the South Korean warship. A ROK military sentry on Baengnyeong Island reported observing an “approximately 100-meter-high ‘pillar of white flash’ for two or three seconds. An explosion had torn into the ship approximately nine feet from the room where the ship’s General Electric LM2500 gas turbine was located turbine. The ship split in half within five minutes of the attack.

The attack took the ship’s crew completely by surprise. The explosion killed many sailors outright, while those located away from the explosion were knocked off their feet. Of the 104 officers and enlisted men onboard the ship, forty-six were killed. Investigators later reported fractures and lacerations on the bodies of those killed, but no burns or injuries from fragmentation weapons.

The ROK Navy immediately launched a search and rescue effort, with survivors picked up by nearby ships. The ROKS Sokcho, another Pohang-class frigate also steaming in the area, reportedly fired hundreds of shots at an unknown radar target after the attack. The ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff later announced the target to have been a flock of birds. Air and naval forces, including South Korea’s landing platform, dock ROKS Dokdo, set up a perimeter to recover remains and eventually the ship itself. The U.S. Navy sent a salvage ship, the USNS Salvor, two destroyers and amphibious assault ship to assist in the recovery effort.

Speculation that the sinking was the result of North Korean action was rampant from the outset. The suspicious submarine activity at Nampo was one contributing factor, as was the North’s history of sudden, violent attacks against South Korean forces. A mine laid by submarine, or a torpedo attack, was considered the most likely cause. The missing North Korean submarine and support ships returned to port three days after the attack.