The sinking of the Cheonan – or rather the result of the explosion that sank the South Korean corvette on March 26 – is proving a tough sell for South Korea’s conservative leaders.
So many theories are floating around about how it happened that it’s beginning to seem possible nothing happened at all, that the ship never exploded, that the two great pieces they hauled up from the Yellow Sea were all cardboard fabrications like North Korean satellites. And the torpedo they dredged up? In this industrialized society, couldn’t someone have twisted and painted that thing to look ugly and bent and rusted in any body shop?
As for the Hangul script that said “No 1” on the propeller housing, forget it – it might as well have been the handiwork of “investigators” wielding big fat marking pens.
There is, to be sure, the matter of the 46 sailors who died in the blast, the bodies of 40 of them said to have been found in the stern, but then what would the leaders of South Korea care about sacrificing young lives if their demise would justify another “aggression” against the North?
The views of the crackpots are proliferating in South Korea so wildly that most people think the international investigation was flawed, even if they are prepared to believe what would have appeared irrefutable, that a North Korean torpedo did blow up the ship. Rather than denounce North Korea for such a dastardly “act of war”, as their leaders have been doing, the critics are denouncing President Lee Myung-bak for upsetting North Korea’s Kim Jong-il by cutting off trade, most aid and other blessings routinely bestowed on the North in the decade of the “Sunshine” policy before Lee took office in February 2008.
The torrent of skepticism turned into a tidal wave this week when a majority of voters turned against the ruling conservative Grand National Party in local elections in which 4,000 jobs were up for grabs.
It would be difficult to say which party got the most individual votes in such a profusion of balloting, but, in the races that counted most, the opposition came out comfortably ahead. Candidates of the Democratic Party won seven of the 16 races for governor and mayor of the country’s nine provinces and seven large independent cities, while conservative candidates won just six of the races. The others went to independents and candidates of minor parties, most of them critical of the government.
The election would have been a near total disaster had the conservative mayor of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, not managed to hold onto his job by a margin of less than 1% of the votes over Han Myeong-sook, a woman who served as prime minister under the late president Roh Moo-hyun.
Han, known for her leftist views, skillfully played on doubts about the investigation during the campaign but did not exactly debunk its results. Rather, she asked rhetorically whether people were “afraid of war” and said she knew how to “solve the problem”.
That question set the tone of the campaign in which the overriding question of Democratic candidates, when it came to the Cheonan, was, “Do you want war or do you want peace.” There were definitely other issues, notably Lee’s close relationships with the chaebol, or conglomerates, that dominate the economy, his advocacy of breaks for big business and his idea of a vast but unpopular scheme for expanding Korea’s four major rivers as arteries for ever-more commerce and industry.
Somehow Lee and his advisers believed his staunch stand on the Cheonan would greatly enhance his sagging popularity. Polls and editorials told him the episode would solidify support among the doubters. Seoul’s mayor Oh was often mentioned as a likely candidate in the next presidential election in December 2012 to succeed Lee, barred by Korea’s “democracy constitution” from seeking a second term.
The question posed by Han and other Democratic candidates not only trumped the government’s accusations against North Korea but also left open the issue of who really sunk the Cheonan.
Questions abound: who were the experts from the half dozen foreign countries who joined the investigation; were they ordered to remain silent and not give their versions; why were all, excluding one from Sweden, from countries allied with the South in the Korean War that ended in 1953?
And then, people are asking, why did the Cheonan go down so soon after annual US and South Korean joint military exercises had ended? Wasn’t there an American ship in the area, capable of laying down the latest brand of mine, with a team of divers aboard? What about the American and South Korean electronic surveillance facilities on nearby Byeongnyeong Island, one of five taken back by the South Koreans from the North Koreans in the Korean War?
The questions raise plot theories to which there is no way to respond since the answers come in the form of ever-more questions and “evidence” drawn from studies and reports that often turn out to have been so skewed as not to be worth checking.
The questions raised here, however, pale beside some of the theories emanating from US commentators who have taken recently to comparing the Cheonan episode with the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of August 1964, which gave US president Lyndon Baines Johnson the rationale for getting the US Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf resolution and plunging into the Vietnam War.
The only real similarity is that North Vietnamese patrol boats did fire torpedoes at an American destroyer, all of which missed before US fighter planes scored some hits on the patrol boats. Two days later, American destroyers fired on what a misreading of radar and sonar facilities led commanders to believe were more North Vietnamese boats, but were actually nothing.
None of which would keep a Washington commentator named Wayne Madsen from asking if the destruction of the Cheonan was a provocation comparable to the Gulf of Tonkin. Beyond that, Madsen mooted what may be the nuttiest theory of all, telling a Russian TV program that “the sinking of the warship was really intended to convince Japan not to move US forces off Okinawa as well as divert the attention of Americans from the dire economic situation at home”.
Think about it. Would the Americans or Japanese or Koreans have been so anxious for American troops to stay on Okinawa as to float a mine capable of lifting a 1,200 vessel up in the air, splitting it in two, sinking it in five minutes and killing nearly half the crew? For that matter, would they have been able to?
Certainly, suggested Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times, writing in the New America Media – described as “a more inclusive journalism”. With that he reported a second-hand report of the US Navy’s diving-support ship Salvor lingering in Korean waters “laying bottom mines” that hide in the lower depths, waiting to explode with enough force to lift up a ship and sink it.
Shimatsu, also said to be an environmental consultant, was sure the torpedo shown off at the South Korean Defense Ministry would have “shattered on impact”. And he offered the word of a “North Korean intelligence analyst” that the North “did not possess an underwater craft stealthy enough to slip past the advanced sonar and audio arrays around Byeongnyeong Island”.
All of which had Stephen Gowans, a Canadian activist, concluding that the sinking of the Cheonan had “all the markings of another Gulf of Tonkin incident” in which “the aggressor is accusing the intended victim of an unprovoked attack to justify a policy of aggression under the pretext of self-defense”.
Fine thinking, but South Korea’s conservative government last weekend called off plans to fire back by dropping leaflets from balloons over the North or begin mega-loudspeaker barrages across the Demilitarized Zone.
It seemed the North’s threat to target the speakers with live fire was enough to convince Lee to pull back. South Koreans are not going to support an attack on North Korea, as the latest round of elections made clear, and the conservative government has no notion of risking more clashes if it can help it. It’s having enough trouble convincing Koreans of what happened, much less inspiring enough patriotic fervor to march off to a second Korean war.
None of which will tamp down the questions about an episode that’s already inspired never-ending conspiracy theories that promise to be flying around at least as long as those surrounding the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Donald Kirk, a long-time journalist in Asia, is author of the newly published Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.
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By Donald Kirk
1) Pyongyang: Cheonan was false-flag sinking: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/LF04Dg02.html
2) The Cheonan: What’s in it for Russia: http://newamericamedia.org/2010/05/did-an-american-mine-sink-the-south-korean-ship.php