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.”