Monday, July 26, 2010

Don't Start Believing

My entire trip last month to South Korea was almost completely overshadowed because of the sinking of the South Korean ship the Cheonan, and the killing of 46 South Korean sailors. The South Korean Government was quick to assume it was North Korea and eventually a report was released confirmed that.
The sinking of the ship became something which allowed the government to stall or crackdown on all sorts of activities that they perceived to be weakening the national security of South Korea. The main targets became social democratic and civil society groups, primarily those who have a core precept that the two Koreas should be someday (puede ha' ti apmam) reunited. For just the week that I was in South Korea, I could see it in the eyes of so many activists, that the sinking, regardless of what the truth behind it was, would be used against them, would be something which Right wing elements could twist into turning the country into a blind nationalistic and militaristic frenzy.

I wrote some short thoughts about this, in particular the way that the group PSPD has produced a counter report for the government's official findings on the sinking, and how when they had submitted that to the UN Security Council (which generally isn't a big deal, since even I can submit a report on Guam to the UNSC. It usually doesn't mean much). That submission became a lightning rod for Right-wing and government attacks on them. While all the PSPD had done was ask some legitimate questions about how South Korea did their analysis and reach such certain conclusions that North Korea has done it, but as a result they found themselves being physically threatened by conservative protests and threatened from high above by the government and various officials.

One of the many frustrations that activists in South Korea regularly repeated was over this Chenoan issue, and how the US government was too quick to side with the South Korean government in blaming North Korea. So much to the point that they most likely would have done so regardless of what any inquiry stated or regardless of whether any inquiry ever existed. For activists in South Korea, this fact was obvious and to be expected since in their rhetoric the US and the current SK Government are both addicted to war and fear-mongering and so even if a report was released stating that North Korea was threatening the world's remaining unicorn population, you would find scathing press releases about it and announced new exercises to take place in the Asia-Pacific region in anticipation of a possible North Korea strike on Bobo yan Prancer the world's last two unicorns.

What made the activists frustrated was the feeling that regular people, for instance regular Americans weren't able to see the obvious for themselves. That they had heard nothing from the American people to indicate that they weren't falling for such an obvious militaristic ruse, that they couldn't be more level-headed or discerning about this. Part of this frustration was not deserved since most South Korean activists didn't know how Americans were responding, and in truth you couldn't fault most Americans for feeling a certain way about something or believing a version of it, when the reality was that they for the most part knew nothing about it. The sinking of the Chenoan ship was major news in the Asia-Pacific region (although not really Guam), but elsewhere it was something which could simply be dismissed as more evidence of crazy Kim Jong.

One joke that I heard more than once in South Korea was about missile testing and the difference between American media and its treatment of North and South Korea. Everytime that North Korea launches a missile, when it (if ever) is successful it is the end of the world, a threat to world peace and so on. When it fails (which it usually does) it's a sign of North Korea and how pathetic and weak and once again crazy it is. It dares to challenge and stand apart from the civilized and freedom-loving world, yet it can't even launch a mere missile?! The importance however is that, every single step that North Korea takes, the US media is watching and covering it through the lens I just described. The same doesn't go for South Korea, who recently had a failed missile test of their own, but was not reported in the American media in anywhere near the same way. The punchline to this joke is of course that if the US media is interested in reporting the threats that are out there to "world peace" then the missiles of a belligerent, aggressive, well-funded wanna be regime like South Korea's, who feels that it has the Golem of the United States watching its back, is far more dangerous that a weak, suffering regime like that of North Korea's.

Needless to say, I was (happily) surprised earler today when I was forwarded not just once, but twice, the LA Times article pasted below, which talks in some small detail about the questions that people in South Korea are having about whether or not North Korea was responsible for the Cheonan sinking.

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Doubts surface on North Korea's role in ship sinking
Some in South Korea dispute the official version of events: that a North Korean torpedo ripped apart the Cheonan.
By Barbara Demick and John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times
July 23, 2010
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.

The doubts about the Cheonan have embarrassed the United States, which will begin joint military exercises Sunday in a show of unity against North Korean aggression. On Friday, an angry North Korea warned that "there will be a physical response" to the maneuvers.

Two South Korean-born U.S. academics have joined the chorus of skepticism, holding a news conference this month in Tokyo to voice their suspicions about the "smoking gun:" a piece of torpedo propeller with a handwritten mark in blue ink reading "No. 1" in Korean.

"You could put that mark on an iPhone and claim it was manufactured in North Korea," scoffed one of the academics, Seunghun Lee, a professor of physics at the University of Virginia.

Lee called the discovery of the propeller fragment five days before the government's news conference suspicious. The salvaged part had more corrosion than would have been expected after just 50 days in the water, yet the blue writing was surprisingly clear, he said.

"The government is lying when they said this was found underwater. I think this is something that was pulled out of a warehouse of old materials to show to the press," Lee said.

South Korean politicians say they've been left in the dark about the investigation.

"We asked for very basic information: interviews with surviving sailors, communication records, the reason the ship was out there," said Choi Moon-soon, an assemblyman with the Democratic Party.

The legislature also has not been allowed to see the full report by the investigative committee, only a five-page synopsis.

"I don't know why they haven't released the report. They are trying to cover up small inconsistencies, and that has cost them credibility," said Kim Chul-woo, a former Defense Ministry official who is now an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government think tank.

A military oversight body, the Board of Inspection and Audit, has accused senior naval officers of lying and concealing information.

"Military officers deliberately left out or distorted key information in their report to senior officials and the public because they wanted to avoid being held to account for being unprepared," an official of the inspection board was quoted as telling the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.

The Cheonan, a 1,200-ton corvette, sank the night of March 26 about 12 miles off North Korea. The first report issued by Yonhap, the official South Korean news agency, said the ship had been struck by a torpedo, but soon afterward the story changed to say the ship sank after being grounded on a reef.

The military repeated that version for days. The audit board found that sailors on a nearby vessel, the Sokcho, who fired off 35 shots with a 76-millimeter cannon around the time of the sinking, were instructed to say they'd been shooting at a flock of birds, even though at first they had said they'd seen a suspected submarine on radar.

On April 2, as Defense Minister Kim Tae-young was testifying before the National Assembly, a cameraman shooting over his right shoulder managed to capture an image of a handwritten note from the president's office instructing him not to talk about North Korean submarines.

Such inconsistencies and reversals have fueled the suspicions of government critics. U.S. officials, however, say the panel's conclusion is irrefutable.

Rear Adm. Thomas J. Eccles, the senior U.S. representative on the panel, said investigators considered all possibilities: a grounding, an internal explosion, a collision with a mine. But they quickly concluded that the boat was sunk by a bubble-jet torpedo, which exploded underneath the vessel and didn't leave the usual signs of an explosion, he said.

"The pattern of damage was exactly aligned with that kind of weapon," Eccles said in a telephone interview. "Torpedoes these days are designed to drive underneath the target and explode. They use the energy of their explosion to make a bubble that expands and contracts. It is designed to break the back of the ship."

Pyongyang, meanwhile, denies involvement in the sinking and calls the accusation against it a fabrication.

South Koreans themselves appear to be confused: Polls show that more than 20% of the public doesn't believe North Korea sank the Cheonan.

Wi Sung-lac, South Korea's top envoy for North Korean affairs, says the criticism from within has made it difficult to get China and Russia on board to punish Pyongyang for the attack.

"They say, 'But even in your own country, many people don't believe the result,' " Wi said.

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