Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Rallying around the Flag or Crying Wolf? Contentions over the Cheonan Incident

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Rallying around the Flag or Crying Wolf? Contentions over the Cheonan Incident

Article excerpt

In this article, I examine the 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan to assess the popular theory of "rally-round-the-flag," focusing especially on its domestic mechanisms. What did the South Korean government do to sell its version of the incident to the public? How effective was it? What were its obstacles? In addition, I explore the possibility that the authorities may in fact have limited ability to engage in effective diversionary activity. I conclude that authorities' efforts were partially successful because of their monopoly of information, control over the press, repression, and institutionalization of memories. Obstacles to their efforts included nongovernmental organizations, independent journalists, and the president's low popularity. KEYWORDS: Cheonan incident, democracy, rally-round-the-flag effect, South Korean politics, inter-Korean relations.

FOLLOWING A TRAGIC AND MYSTERIOUS SINKING OF A NAVAL SHIP, A political crisis rocked South Korea (Republic of Korea; ROK). On March 26, 2010, the Cheonan began to sink just south of the border with North Korea on the west coast of the Korean peninsula.1 Rescue efforts quickly began, but so did confusion as the situation progressed. The sinking did not leave enough time for many to evacuate. Out of 106 sailors on board, only fifty-eight were quickly rescued while forty-six remained missing. In the meantime, another ship in the area opened fire on an unidentified object heading north, believing that it was a North Korean ship. The ROK authorities later announced that the object was actually a big flock of birds. By late that evening, the Cheonan had completely sunk.

By early April the rescue mission was for the most part over, and the government switched its focus to finding and extricating the ship. On April 16, 2010, a Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (JIG) comprising military and civilian experts released its preliminary report, which cautiously hinted that the sinking was the result of an external explosion, fueling suspicions about North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK). On April 17, the DPRK denied that it had attacked the ROK naval vessel, but the speculation in the South that the ship had been hit by a DPRK torpedo continued to grow without any clear alternative explanation. The JIG's final report, released May 20, concluded that a North Korean submarine had torpedoed the Cheonan.

Given the hostile and often violent relationship between North Korea and South Korea, the idea of the DPRK attacking the Cheonan was easy for many South Koreans to accept. As the initial reports of the sinking spread, many regarded the North with suspicion, although President Lee Myung-bak warned South Koreans not to jump to any conclusions. However, the caution quickly ebbed away, and the authorities began to pursue and advocate the North Korea theory while suppressing alternative theories, such as a crash with a submarine. As I show, the authorities used a range of mechanisms to promote the idea of North Korean aggression. This event was not isolated, for there is a long history of ROK authorities employing political propaganda and manipulation to exploit political crises, often blaming the DPRK-sometimes legitimately, sometimes not-in the name of national security. The masses usually succumb to the manipulation and often rally around the government's flag.

During the alleged "water attack" in 1986, for instance, the authorities claimed that the DPRK was building a huge dam just north of the border with the ROK with the intention of using it as a water bomb. Government officials claimed that if the DPRK broke the dam, the entire city of Seoul would be submerged and devastated. They proposed building a defensive dam to prevent a water flow from the North, and soon thereafter began a public campaign for the construction of a so-called Dam of Peace. The South Korean public was mobilized in mass rallies denouncing the North and was compelled to make financial contributions to the project. …

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