Wednesday, June 23, 2010

SK Solidarity Trip Day 4: PSPD Report

There were a number of things which overshadowed my trip to South Korea, and when I say overshadowed, I mean things which would constantly appear, be brought up or dictate the conversation regardless of where I went. For instance, the World Cup was huge while I was in South Korea and so everywhere I went, people were talking about it or sporting their pride in their national sport's team. Another issue was reunification and how recent elections this month have helped diminish so many hopes for progress on the re-uniting of the two Koreas.

One issue however, especially in conversations with South Korea activists, whether in Seoul, Paju, Pyeongtaek or Jeju, which was always very prominent and had so many people angry, frustrated or on edge was the sinking of the South Korean military ship, the Cheonan in March.
The ship was participating in joint training exercises with US military forces, when it ran aground and split in two 58 of those aboard survived while 46 died. The South Korean government and much of the world was quick to blame North Korea, even prior to any investigation on the matter. Eventually in May the South Korean government released a report stating that, "The evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine. There is no other plausible explanation.” On June 1st, a South Korean NGO, People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy released a report of its own, which called into question the government's finding and also called on the government to be more transparent with how it had come to its conclusions. The PSPD's report revolved around 8 questions that they felt together pointed at clear holes in the South Korean Government's case and required that more transparent investigation needed to take place. Here are their 8 questions from their report:

Question 1. Had been really a torpedo-induced water column?

Question 2. No such severe injuries evident of a torpedo explosion found in the bodies of survivors and deceased soldiers

Question 3. Is it true that there is no TOD recordings from the early stage of the Cheonan incident?

Question 4. There are no severe damages evident of an explosion on the severed surface, on the bottom of the ship and in the interior of the hull.

Question 5. Why the military concealed the finding and refloating of the gas turbine room? And why did they omit the investigation of the gas turbine room from investigating?

Question 6. Were the oxidized aluminum substances, not gun powder, evident of an explosion?

Question 7. What is the profile of the YONO class submarine? Is it understandable that the submarine had not been followed for several days by the ROK and the U.S. surveillance?

Question 8. Why couldn't a torpedo launch be detected?
Furthermore, they also released as part of their report, six problems that they found with the process by which the South Korean government conducted their investigation:

Problem1. The military not disclosing and censoring basic information on the Cheonan vessel

Problem2. Hiding of the TOD video-recordings of the Cheonan breaking into half and sinking and changing of words

Problem3. Imposing political and legal measures and restrictions against ordinary citizens raising doubts

Problem4. The JIG practically excluding civilians

Problem5. The JIG that limited investigative efforts by civilian members

Problem6. Unknown roles of the foreign investigators


The reasons for why South Korean peace and progress activists would be frustrated about this issue should be obvious. Most of them are invested in different ways of moving their country towards reunification with North Korea, the opening up of their society and government, and the decreasing of the foreign military base in their country, and the breaking of US military hegemony in the region. The Cheonan incident has been used to prevent movement in any of those directions and has in the minds of so many I talked to, set things back.

Trade between the two Koreas has now been cut off, with no goods allowed to cross from the South to the North. The rhetoric of both North and South Korea has become more aggressive, but this is far more true on the South Korean side, as the current government has become emboldened by the fact that they feel like the world is on their side of this issue and so they can be more brazen. The six-party talks which have been slowly moving forward for so long will now be setback quite a ways. Peace in this sense has definitely taken a hit.

Both the South Korean government and the US government have used this incident to argue for more US presence on the Korean peninsula, thus further militarizing an already very militarized society. One of the reasons why people everywhere should be concerned about increased militarized by the US in this region, is that so much of what the US is planning is with the intent of "boxing in" or containing China, its military and its influence. The various plans which the US is working on in places such as Jeju, Pyeongtaek, Taiwan, Guam and Okinawa are all part of a larger, dangerous strategy of forcing the hand of China, through the rhetoric of "defense" and "deterrence." An event such as this, when blamed on North Korea becomes a contemporary Gulf of Tonkin incident, which can be used (regardless of what the facts are) as the basis for offensive escalation in the name of defense.

As a Gulf of Tonkin style catalyst, the whole American hegemony of this side of the Pacific is maintained, and that lovely fantasy that American military planners and PR people have of being a safety umbrella or a shield to protect people here from threats, suddenly appears to be true and necessary. Such is the case of Japan, Okinawa and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose government, before he resigned, used the Cheonan ship incident as one of their best talking points for why the bases in Okinawa needed to remain in Okinawa.

Now for those who don't know, South Korea has a National Security Law, whose core tenant is that anyone who sympathizes or helps the North Korea government or North Korea in general can be arrested or imprisoned. Over the past few days I have met many, many people who have been arrested and imprisoned because of this law, and amongst peace activists in South Korea it is the bane of their existence. Anything which they do, can in some way be construed by the South Korean government as helping North Korea and they can wind up in jail because of it.

After compiling their report, the PSPD submitted a copy of it to the United Nations Security Council, where South Korea has been lobbying furiously to get sanctions set against North Korea. Submitting of these sorts of reports to the UNSC is common and usually pointless, but the South Korea government did not think so, and has been threatening the PSPD with prison, lawsuits and has been saying very bad things about them in the press. In their international call for solidarity and help sent out last week, the PSPD collected a list of attacks that had been made on them by government officials:
On June 15, 2010, the Grand National Party, Spokesperson, Hae Jin Cho stated that “PSPD’s behavior is a typical enemy-benefiting behavior… Harsh constitutional measures must be imposed on those who try to sell/betray the country while hiding behind the freedom and democracy.”

On June 15, 2010, the Grand National Party’s floor leader, Moo Sung Kim stated that “I think that (such behavior) is enemy-benefiting behavior that threatens the identity of the Republic of Korea and injures our national security… Even though South Korea is a democratic country guaranteeing freedom of expression, I cannot tolerate such irresponsible, pro-DPRK conduct benefiting the enemy… PSPD should voluntarily dissolve… (PSPD) must pay price.”

On June 14, 2010, the spokesperson of the Blue House stated that “this is a shameful and worrisome situation… I really want to ask PSPD their underlying purpose in engaging in such behavior.”

On June 14, 2010, the Prime Minister Un-Chan Chung stated that “I wonder of what nationality they (PSPD) are. Such actions are against national interest. It (PSPD’s actions) dishonored and shamed our country.”

On June 15, 2010, the 2nd Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Chun, Yung-woo replied for the question “Are there any cases that a NGO sends a contrast position paper against the government on the security issue”, “ I have never heard of that there are such NGOs, and document sent by a NGO cannot be a UNSC document.”

The South Korean government has since released an official response to the claims of the PSPD and I'm still looking for an English language copy of it. In the meantime, right-wing elements in the country have been regularly protesting outside of the PSPD's office, and from reports that I've read, they have tried to break into their building, thrown eggs at them, and one man even attempted to drive a truck filled with gas tanks and paint-thinner into the building, perhaps with the intent that it explode killing everyone. While the PSPD has gained alot of negative attention from this, they have also gotten lots of positive attention as well. Within a few days after filing their report, they increased the size of their membership by several hundred, as at least 1/3 of South Koreans do not believe their government on the Cheonan ship issue.

One of the most intriguing things about this case, and the way it reveals how delicate things are for the South Korean government here, or how much they seem to hide, is that the PSPD's actions were not radical in almost any sense of the word. After reading through their report, it is not radical at all, and after talking to activist about what kind of organization the PSPD is, all said that it is basically a center-left group and not at all far-left or extreme. It is in instances like this where you have to really wonder what the South Korean government is attempting to hide or why it feels like it cannot allow dissent on this issue? Different conspiracy theories abound, I heard plenty of them around South Korea, but regardless of what the truth is on this issue of what happened to the Cheonan, it is clear that the South Korean government is determined to be more militaristic and more aggressive, and true or not, this issue is one which allows it to pursue that course more easily.

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