Is North Korea Guilty?

In the court of American public opinion, North Korea has been declared guilty of sinking the Cheonan and the only question is what sentence to impose on the rogue nation that committed this reckless act. While there is evidence for that perspective, would it be adequate in a court of law? And is it adequate to take actions that could lead to a Korean War, especially one that could go nuclear? Recent developments, while far from clearing North Korea, would seem to raise at least reasonable doubt.

Mr. S. C. Shin, originally a member of the commission investigating the incident, but replaced at the request of the South Korean Defense Ministry, has published an open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which he presents evidence pointing to an accidental grounding of the Cheonan, followed by a collision with another vessel that caused the Cheonan to break in two. Shin claims:

  • The first distress call from the Cheonan was that it had run aground.
  • A chart initially used by the Navy to show victims’ families what happened showed where the Cheonan had run aground.
  • Damage to the hull indicates grounding, not a torpedo attack.
  • The propellers are bent in a way that proves they were in “full engine astern” while hitting the bottom, again consistent with grounding but inconsistent with a torpedo attack.

Shin was appointed to the investigative commission at the request of the Korean Democratic Party, the main opposition party to the current administration of President Lee Myung-bak. One could argue that the Democratic Party is motivated to fabricate evidence of a subterfuge on the part of President Lee in order to advance its own political agenda. Of course, one could argue – and the Democratic Party has – that Lee was motivated to fabricate evidence to cover up a bungled naval operation and to advance his own, more hawkish approach to North Korea.

If these doubts about North Korea’s guilt are removed, other factors should also be considered in determining our reaction:

  • The Northern Limit Line (NLL) is not an internationally recognized sea boundary. It was imposed unilaterally by the US and its allies, has never been recognized by North Korea, and puts North Korean shipping at a disadvantage.
  • The previous South Korean President had reached agreement with the North to reduce naval tension in the area, but President Lee abrogated those agreements immediately on assuming office.
  • In a 2009 exchange of fire, a North Korean vessel was set ablaze near the NLL.
  • In a 2002 exchange of fire, a South Korean ship was sunk near the NLL.
  • In a 1999 naval encounter, two North Korean vessels were sunk near the NLL.

The above reinforces what I said in my earlier post about the Cheonan: “Whenever I read accounts with clear cut good guys and bad guys, I try to delve more deeply. Sometimes confrontations are one sided, but most of the time there is another side to the story that doesn’t fit with conventional wisdom.” It would behoove us to keep that in mind not only here, but whenever war may be involved.


1. I sat on this story for several days because I had been unable to verify that Shin’s account wasn’t just a hoax – as can happen on the Internet. An article today from a major Korean newspaper, The JoongAng Daily, confirmed his position on the commission and other key elements of his story. This article adds a new accusation by Shin: photographs show that the alleged North Korean markings on the recovered torpedo parts were written on the rusted surface, not on the original smooth surface, and hence are faked. Both Shin’s letter and this article allege that the South Korean Navy is taking legal action to silence him. The article also alleges Shin is not the first to be silenced in this manner.

2. If Shin’s accusations prove true, but not before faked evidence leads to war, it would not be the first time. The sinking of the USS Maine set off the Spanish-American War even though little evidence pointed to Spain as the culprit. The second Gulf of Tonkin Incident that gave Johnson the legal justification for escalating the Viet Nam War probably never happened. And, in 1962’s Operation Northwoods, all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had signed off on a plan for a Remember-the-Maine-type-incident to create public support for an invasion of Castro’s Cuba. Among other options, the plan suggested that “We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.”

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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10 Responses to Is North Korea Guilty?

  1. Russ Wellen says:

    This also reminds me of the Lockerbie and Flight 103. Many believe the culprit wasn’t the Libyan al Megrahai and cohorts but Palestinians and that Libya paid reparations just to get back in the good trading graces of Western states.

  2. The need for certainty is strong in the human mind. It quells fear and quiets anxiety. However, certitude acts like glue in one’s psyche; it keeps the mind’s wheels from turning and can lead to impaired judgement. The unwavering conviction that one’s “correct” thinking (orthodoxy) should dominate over the “incorrect” thinking (heterodoxy) of others has caused untold suffering and misery by sublimating moral and ethical behavior in the process of perpetrating grotesque violence on others–especially others who are different. Yet man continues to find himself red-faced. Such a manichean world view is a dangerous perspective from which to make decisions–especially those potentially involving lethal violence.

  3. Mike Keltan says:

    I think we need to separate two things out here; namely, fault and response.

    Based on what I have seen and read of this incident (i.e. North Korean torpedo propeller, hull blast damage atypical of a grounding), and based on a history of aggression and the behavioral pattern of late, it appears more likely than not that the boat was sunk by North Korea.


    The response to this is not initiation of aggression. The facts are:
    1. South Korea would not and could not provoke war with the North, or their entire economy would be decimated to a fraction of its existing capacity very quickly, particularly the shelling on Seoul.
    2. North Korea would not and could not provoke war because the country would be obliterated and Kim’s regime finished off within days.
    3. Nuclear weapons are, as always, an end game that has been proven by game theory (i.e. the Prisoner’s Dilemma) and knowledge of real-world nuclear attack to be lose-lose.

    Nevertheless, there will be posturing on both sides. South Korea does not want to make the mistake of appeasement that led to WWII, and North Korea does not want to appear to be weak. All this will come to pass, and eventually the North will be forced to the negotiating table to exchange amnesty for regime members in exchange for reunification. Unfortunately, this appears unlikely to happen any time soon, particularly when China is supporting DPRK due to concern about millions of DPRK refugees flooding into its country during a regime collapse.

    What is of greater concern is the proliferation of nuclear materials and knowledge by North Korea to Myanmar, as stated by a Myanmar defector this past week. This situation needs to be addressed much more quickly in the context of Martin’s efforts here.

  4. Aaron S. says:

    There is other intel pointing to DPRK besides the recovered torpedo wreckage. A surface vessel supporting mini-subs left port shortly before the Cheonan sunk, and returned shortly after. A DPRK admiral was photographed with an additional star on his epaulet immediately after the incident.

  5. Mike Carey says:

    The tit for tat pattern of senseless conflict rolls on – violent rhetoric used to justify violent action; killings used to justify more killings.

    Consider the memory fog that still engulfs the events that led up to the downing of Pan Am flight 103:
    1982 US naval bombardment during Lebanese invasion
    1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing
    1986 Disco bombing in Germany
    1986 US bombing of Libya
    1988 US downing of Iran Air 655
    1988 Downing of Pan Am Flight 103
    2000 Iranian defector talks to CBS News

    And here we go again in Asia – a US ally talking tough after years of violent skirmishes with a desperate opponent backed by a global power with nuclear weapons. What could possibly go wrong – again?

  6. jill says:

    Thank you for sharing these events. I pray that one day mankind will live in peace. What is wrong with people? May justice prevail in these troubled times.

  7. Dan Beswick says:

    I just finished reading “Matterhorn” a novel about the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. In the book there are many miscalculations and exaggerations to cover up deadly military mistakes. So who can you trust today to present factual information versus a case for building a coverup story for military blunders? Given the strong political and military connection between North Korea and China and South Korea and the United States, all parties had better be absolutely certain of our facts and then intelligently determine the long term consequences of any actions, including nuclear, that might be written for our generation.

  8. Mixter says:

    If there is any one thing that we know, it is that the victors write the history books. Whatever we think we know now will be rewritten when the matter is resolved. None of the parties are innocent here, and I can only hope that we do not encounter the next species up the evolutionary ladder soon, as I fear we will be somewhat lacking in their eyes.

  9. Nuclear Risk says:

    My thanks to all of you for posting comments. They add a lot to the blog. Mixter makes a good point about the victors writing the history books. For another take on that, check out a short OpEd I wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

  10. moe says:

    North and south korea have been fighting like spouses in a abusive marriage who are to afraid to separate, leave each other alone, or murder one another.

    Lots of small incidents have happened over the years
    and the general pattern is for south korea to minimize any impact or involvement of north korea, and then some time later, as soon as tempers have cooled, to have the facts come out…

    It is a political game that have been played for decades.

    look how a ship gets her back broken,
    Having a large explosion in shallow water allows the bottom of the water to reflect some of the energy back to the surface, the math is pretty simple.

    This is a little disinformation game that has been going on for years before the sinking. South horea did it with KAL 858, , and we did it with KAL007 . Feel free to go through the news archives covering the korean region. There is a clear pattern of minimizing and denial, and ignoring the publicly spoken lies.

    This is the same thing that the early sinking coverage was. Anyone who can look at an ocean chart, would know that a grounding was an impossibility. For one, the ship would have remained above water. Though it is technicality possible for a “knife edge” bit of rock to exist in the ocean, the scour action of the sea would render it flat over time.

    Second the damage that results in grounding results in a wrinkling of the hull plates with large longitudinal scoring, none of those injuries were present when the ship was pulled out of the water.

    If you compare the pictures of the South Korean ship to those ships in WWII that had sub keel explosions , you will see similar destruction patters, similar breakage. And speaking as someone who enjoys large explosions, the South Korean ship has all the classic marks of a “bubble break”.

    and as far as the risk of nuclear war, the more north korea abuses the relationship with china, the less we have to worry about a missile launch hitting the USA, and any attempt to do an inland attack via a “container bomb” is bound to be thwarted. The only realistic attack scenario that north korea has is to ship the bomb into a port (such as long beach) , and detonate the bomb up while docked.

    As far as TFA you cited goes, if you dig a little further (remember the “clear good/bad guy”) please check the validity of your source, .one of his other theories was
    “… that it is highly likely that the Cheonan sank on March 26 due to a collision with a U.S. warship and Washington is trying to cover up the truth. “

    The wreckage of the Cheonan , in no way resembles the damage associated with a colision.

    Shin Sang-cheol runs Seoprise, a Web-based political magazine please search for informative articles on the website he runs, such as , where they say “look at the unbroken florescent light” when there is a person standing in a cave clearly made from a torpedo.

    Remember this person was not the Richard Phillips Feynman of the commission, this is a country that believes in fan death . South Korea also has a history of people expressing unscientific opinion as fact. “The Korea Consumer Protection Board (KCPB), a South Korean government-funded public agency, issued a consumer safety alert in 2006 warning that “asphyxiation from electric fans and air conditioners” was among South Korea’s five most common seasonal summer accidents or injuries, according to data they collected.”

    If you were a student in my class I would give you a failing grade for using such a known easily demonstrated dubious source.

    War is not going to happen over the sinking of the Cheonan, War was not declared over the blowing up of KAL 858, (115 killed), , nor over an unsuccessful assassination attempt of the south korean president .

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