It’s Hard to Believe in the Lee Administration

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Thermal image of Cheonan sinkingErich Weingartner underscores the most annoying aspects of the Cheonan disaster: the Lee administration and the ROK military establishment keep doubt alive with their ham-fisted performances.

CanKor does not have access to the technical expertise necessary to make a judgment about the JIG report. However, if North Korea did indeed fire a torpedo at the Cheonan, and if it served China’s interests to raise doubts about DPRK responsibility, then the ROK-led JIG handed them plausible deniability on a silver platter.

Barbara Demick also makes this point with a running list of gaffes committed by South Korean politicians and military officials.

South Korean politicians say they’ve been left in the dark about the investigation.

“We asked for very basic information: interviews with surviving sailors, communication records, the reason the ship was out there,” said Choi Moon-soon, an assemblyman with the Democratic Party.

The legislature also has not been allowed to see the full report by the investigative committee, only a five-page synopsis.

“I don’t know why they haven’t released the report. They are trying to cover up small inconsistencies, and that has cost them credibility,” said Kim Chul-woo, a former Defense Ministry official who is now an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government think tank.

A military oversight body, the Board of Inspection and Audit, has accused senior naval officers of lying and concealing information.

“Military officers deliberately left out or distorted key information in their report to senior officials and the public because they wanted to avoid being held to account for being unprepared,” an official of the inspection board was quoted as telling the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.

The Cheonan, a 1,200-ton corvette, sank the night of March 26 about 12 miles off North Korea. The first report issued by Yonhap, the official South Korean news agency, said the ship had been struck by a torpedo, but soon afterward the story changed to say the ship sank after being grounded on a reef.

The military repeated that version for days. The audit board found that sailors on a nearby vessel, the Sokcho, who fired off 35 shots with a 76-millimeter cannon around the time of the sinking, were instructed to say they’d been shooting at a flock of birds, even though at first they had said they’d seen a suspected submarine on radar.

On April 2, as Defense Minister Kim Tae-young was testifying before the National Assembly, a cameraman shooting over his right shoulder managed to capture an image of a handwritten note from the president’s office instructing him not to talk about North Korean submarines.

Such inconsistencies and reversals have fueled the suspicions of government critics. U.S. officials, however, say the panel’s conclusion is irrefutable.

Rear Adm. Thomas J. Eccles, the senior U.S. representative on the panel, said investigators considered all possibilities: a grounding, an internal explosion, a collision with a mine. But they quickly concluded that the boat was sunk by a bubble-jet torpedo, which exploded underneath the vessel and didn’t leave the usual signs of an explosion, he said.

“The pattern of damage was exactly aligned with that kind of weapon,” Eccles said in a telephone interview. “Torpedoes these days are designed to drive underneath the target and explode. They use the energy of their explosion to make a bubble that expands and contracts. It is designed to break the back of the ship.”

Pyongyang, meanwhile, denies involvement in the sinking and calls the accusation against it a fabrication.

South Koreans themselves appear to be confused: Polls show that more than 20% of the public doesn’t believe North Korea sank the Cheonan.

I realize this skepticism is bordering on denialism and wingnut territory. But, more than the partisan contretemps, it’s these odd reversals in statements and Lee administration’s bluster and evasiveness that causes me concern. Of course, the Lee administration could be both correct and ham-fisted. I’m also certain the veracity of the episode is little more than a media spectacle that helps all sides keep inter-Korean relations fixed in the public view. I’m just not sure how important, beyond the respect due to the honorable sailors who died, the incident really is for those relations.


Filed under: East Asia, Korea, Maritime, Military, Politics, USA Tagged: brbara demick, cankor, cheonan, dprk, lee myung bak, north korea, rok

 

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