Doubts surface on North Korea's role in ship sinkingKim Myong Chol plays Nero Wolfe
July 23, 2010
by Barbara Demick and John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2010
Some in South Korea dispute the official version of events: that a North Korean torpedo ripped apart the Cheonan.
Reporting from Seoul — The way U.S. officials see it, there's little mystery behind the most notorious shipwreck in recent Korean history.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calls the evidence "overwhelming" that the Cheonan, a South Korean warship that sank in March, was hit by a North Korean torpedo. Vice President Joe Biden has cited the South Korean-led panel investigating the sinking as a model of transparency.
But challenges to the official version of events are coming from an unlikely place: within South Korea.
Armed with dossiers of their own scientific studies and bolstered by conspiracy theories, critics dispute the findings announced May 20 by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, which pointed a finger at Pyongyang.
They also question why Lee made the announcement nearly two months after the ship's sinking, on the very day campaigning opened for fiercely contested local elections. Many accuse the conservative leader of using the deaths of 46 sailors to stir up anti-communist sentiment and sway the vote.
The critics, mostly but not all from the opposition, say it is unlikely that the impoverished North Korean regime could have pulled off a perfectly executed hit against a superior military power, sneaking a submarine into the area and slipping away without detection. They also wonder whether the evidence of a torpedo attack was misinterpreted, or even fabricated.
"I couldn't find the slightest sign of an explosion," said Shin Sang-chul, a former shipbuilding executive-turned-investigative journalist. "The sailors drowned to death. Their bodies were clean. We didn't even find dead fish in the sea."
Shin, who was appointed to the joint investigative panel by the opposition Democratic Party, inspected the damaged ship with other experts April 30. He was removed from the panel shortly afterward, he says, because he had voiced a contrary opinion: that the Cheonan hit ground in the shallow water off the Korean peninsula and then damaged its hull trying to get off a reef.
"It was the equivalent of a simple traffic accident at sea," Shin said.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Shin was removed because of "limited expertise, a lack of objectivity and scientific logic," and that he was "intentionally creating public mistrust" in the investigation.
Shin wasn't the only one to question the official version of the Cheonan's sinking. On May 5 a well-known 'unofficial' spokesman for North Korea's regime, Kim Myong Chol, penned an op-ed for the Asia Times in which he made four arguments:
...Fact 1. North Korean submarines are not stealthy enough to penetrate heavily guarded South Korean waters at night and remain undetected by the highly touted anti-submarine warfare units of the American and South Korean forces. A North Korean submarine would be unable to outmaneuver an awesome array of high-tech Aegis warships, identify the corvette Cheonan and then slice it in two with a torpedo before escaping unscathed, leaving no trace of its identity.However, being a mouthpiece for Pyongyang and all, Kim couldn't resist using the arguments to grandstand against the United States, take a jab at U.S. weapons technology, and concoct a theory on the Cheonan sinking (it was friendly fire incident) that made the U.S. and ROK look like bumblers who then engaged in an elaborate cover-up.
Fact 2. The sinking took place not in North Korean waters but well inside tightly guarded South Korean waters, where a slow-moving North Korean submarine would have great difficulty operating covertly and safely, unless it was equipped with AIP (air-independent propulsion) technology.
Fact 2: The disaster took place precisely in the waters where what the Pentagon has called "one of the world's largest simulated exercises" was underway. This war exercise, known as "Key Resolve/Foal Eagle" did not end on March 18 as was reported but actually ran from March 18 to April 30.
Fact 3: The Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercise on the West Sea near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) was aimed at keeping a more watchful eye on North Korea as well as training for the destruction of weapons of mass destruction in the North. It involved scores of shiny, ultra-modern US and South Korean warships equipped with the latest technology.
Among the fleet were four Aegis ships: the USS Shiloh (CG-67), a 9,600-ton Ticonderoga class cruiser, the USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54), a 6,800-ton Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, a 9,200-ton Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer and Sejong the Great, a 8,500-ton South Korean guided-missile destroyer.
The four surface ships are the most important assets of the two navies, and have multi-mission platforms capable of conducting various tasks, such as anti-submarine warfare. There is every likelihood that they were supported by nuclear-powered US submarines and a South Korean "Type 214" submarine that uses AIP technology.
Fact 4: Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said on March 30 that he doubted there was North Korean involvement in the sinking: "Obviously the full investigation needs to go forward. But to my knowledge, there's no reason to believe or to be concerned that that may have been the cause."
But interestingly, it was not long after Kim's article appeared that the mysterious North Korean attack sub became described as a "mini-sub" -- a superdooper midget that could sneak around undetected by even the most sophisticated anti-submarine sensors on the planet.
Kim whips out a magnifying glass
Kim Myong Chol scored again in a May 26 op-ed for the Asia Times, in which he zeroed in on a piece of evidence produced by the ROK-led international team that investigated the Cheonan sinking:
... The investigation team produced what it termed "conclusive evidence": the eye-catching hand-written Korean markings "ilbon" or "No 1" in English found on the propulsion section of the used torpedo allegedly recovered from the sea bed.He gilded the lily by adding, "A likely theory for this blunder is the sense on the part of the investigators that there was an absence of hard evidence to impress a skeptical South Korean and world audience."
This turns out to be most inconclusive and counter-productive, calling into serious question the credibility of the findings. The use of "ilbon" in Korean script - not in Chinese characters - may look like North Korean writing, which is distinctly different from what is written in South Korea. But native North Koreans use "ilho" for the English "No 1". "Ilbon" is what South Koreans would use, although North Korean street addresses more often than often not do contain numerals like "ilbon".
Those whom the gods of detection would destroy they first raise up
But after making sensible points, on June 4 Kim forged ahead and shot himself in the foot with a howler titled Pyongyang: Cheonan was false-flag sinking. The Asia Times decided to play the fool, but this time made sure to note right underneath Kim's byline that he was an "unofficial" spokesman for Pyongyang. Kim reported that the crack Chinese naval intelligence unit had done their own investigation and pieced together that the Cheonan sinking was an American act of sabotage. But out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than get up and announce this great embarrassment for the United States they leaked the findings to two highly authoritative American websites: Wayne Madsen's Report and New America Media, "a California-based website that is the US's largest coalition of ethnic media with over 2,500 partners." I hope the Marvel Comics website didn't feel slighted.
So what sank the Cheonan?
If Shin Sang-chul is correct -- if no dead fish were found in the waters around the vessel -- I don't see how an explosion could have sunk the Cheonan.
However, if the writing on the torpedo fragment was embellished a bit by the South Korean investigation team, they can join the millions of police since the dawn of the criminal justice system who wanted to make sure a case held up in court because they felt certain the accused was guilty.
In other words if there was embellishment, it does not automatically follow that Seoul plotted to start a war with Pyongyang. I can see how the South Korean government would want terribly to believe that such an awful event was the work of evil intentions and not a prosaic accident.
As the history of detective work tells us, the will to believe is a detective's worst enemy. But if South Korean officials blinded themselves to certain facts in the case, China's government kicked the South Korean people when they were down by trying to make hay from a national tragedy.
The Koreans on both sides of the DMZ have suffered enough from the remnants of an old proxy war between China and the United States. If the sinking of the Cheonan reminds the world of this, the tragedy will have launched a new era on the Korean peninsula, a better era.