The sinking of the Cheonan: Another Gulf of Tonkin incident

The following analysis of recent US/south Korean accusations against Democratic Korea is by Stephen Gowans, from his blog, What’s Left:

While the South Korean government announced on May 20 that it has overwhelming evidence that one of its warships was sunk by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine, there is, in fact, no direct link between North Korea and the sunken ship. And it seems very unlikely that North Korea had anything to do with it.

That’s not my conclusion. It’s the conclusion of Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence. Won told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April, less than two weeks after the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sank in waters off Baengnyeong Island, that there was no evidence linking North Korea to the Cheonan’s sinking. (1)

South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo (2), while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected…(in) the waters where the accident took place.” (3)

Notice he said “accident.”

Defense Ministry officials added that they had not detected any North Korean submarines in the area at the time of the incident. (4) According to Lee, “We didn’t detect any movement by North Korean submarines near” the area where the Cheonan went down. (5)

When speculation persisted that the Cheonan had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo, the Defense Ministry called another press conference to reiterate “there was no unusual North Korean activities detected at the time of the disaster.” (6)

A ministry spokesman, Won Tae-jae, told reporters that “With regard to this case, no particular activities by North Korean submarines or semi-submarines…have been verified. I am saying again that there were no activities that could be directly linked to” the Cheonan’s sinking. (7)

Rear Admiral Lee, the head of the marine operations office, added that, “We closely watched the movement of the North’s vessels, including submarines and semi-submersibles, at the time of the sinking. But military did not detect any North Korean submarines near the country’s western sea border.” (8)

North Korea has vehemently denied any involvement in the sinking.

So, a North Korean submarine is now said to have fired a torpedo which sank the Cheonan, but in the immediate aftermath of the sinking the South Korean navy detected no North Korean naval vessels, including submarines, in the area. Indeed, immediately following the incident defense minister Lee ruled out a North Korean torpedo attack, noting that a torpedo would have been spotted by radar, and no torpedo had been spotted. (9)

The case gets weaker still.

It’s unlikely that a single torpedo could split a 1,200 ton warship in two. Baek Seung-joo, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis says that “If a single torpedo or floating mine causes a naval patrol vessel to split in half and sink, we will have to rewrite our military doctrine.” (10)

The Cheonan sank in shallow, rapidly running, waters, in which it’s virtually impossible for submarines to operate. “Some people are pointing the finger at North Korea,” notes Song Young-moo, a former South Korean navy chief of staff, “but anyone with knowledge about the waters where the shipwreck occurred would not draw that conclusion so easily.” (11)

Contrary to what looks like an improbable North-Korea-torpedo-hypothesis, the evidence points to the Cheonan splitting in two and sinking because it ran aground upon a reef, a real possibility given the shallow waters in which the warship was operating. According to Go Yeong-jae, the South Korean Coast Guard captain who rescued 56 of the stricken warship’s crew, he “received an order …that a naval patrol vessel had run aground in the waters 1.2 miles to the southwest of Baengnyeong Island, and that we were to move there quickly to rescue them.” (12)

So how is it that what looked like no North Korean involvement in the Cheonan’s sinking, according to the South Korean military in the days immediately following the incident, has now become, one and half months later, an open and shut case of North Korean aggression, according to government-appointed investigators?

The answer has much to do with the electoral fortunes of South Korea’s ruling Grand National Party, and the party’s need to marshal support for a tougher stance on the North. Lurking in the wings are US arms manufacturers who stand to profit if South Korean president Lee Myung-bak wins public backing for beefed up spending on sonar equipment and warships to deter a North Korean threat – all the more likely with the Cheonan incident chalked up to North Korean aggression.

Lee Myung Bak

Lee is a North Korea-phobe who prefers a confrontational stance toward his neighbor to the north to the policy of peaceful coexistence and growing cooperation favored by his recent predecessors (and by Pyongyang, as well. It’s worth mentioning that North Korea supports a policy of peace and cooperation. South Korea, under its hawkish president, does not.) Fabricating a case against the North serves Lee in a number of ways. If voters in the South can be persuaded that the North is indeed a menace – and it looks like this is exactly what is happening – Lee’s hawkish policies will be embraced as the right ones for present circumstances. This will prove immeasurably helpful in upcoming mayoral and gubernatorial elections in June.

What’s more, Lee’s foreign policy rests on the goal of forcing the collapse of North Korea. When he took office in February 2008, he set about reversing a 10-year-old policy of unconditional aid to the North. He has also refused to move ahead on cross-border economic projects. (13) The claim that the sinking of the Cheonan is due to an unprovoked North Korean torpedo attack makes it easier for Lee to drum up support for his confrontational stance.

Finally, the RAND Corporation is urging South Korea to buy sensors to detect North Korean submarines and more warships to intercept North Korean naval vessels. (14) An unequivocal US-lackey – protesters have called the security perimeter around Lee’s office “the U.S. state of South Korea” (15) – Lee would be pleased to hand US corporations fat contracts to furnish the South Korean military with more hardware.

The United States, too, has motivations to fabricate a case against North Korea. One is to justify the continued presence, 65 years after the end of WWII, of US troops on Japanese soil. Many Japanese bristle at what is effectively a permanent occupation of their country by more than a token contingent of US troops. There are 60,000 US soldiers, airmen and sailors in Japan. Washington, and the Japanese government – which, when it isn’t willingly collaborating with its own occupiers, is forced into submission by the considerable leverage Washington exercises — justifies its troop presence through the sheer sophistry of presenting North Korea as an ongoing threat. The claim that North Korea sunk the Cheonan in an unprovoked attack strengthens Washington’s case for occupation. Not surprisingly, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has seized on the Cheonan incident to underline “the importance of the America-Japanese alliance, and the presence of American troops on Japanese soil.” (16)

Given these political realities, it comes as no surprise that from the start members of Lee’s party blamed the sinking of the Cheonan on a North Korean torpedo (17), just as members of the Bush administration immediately blamed 9/11 on Saddam Hussein, and then proceeded to look for evidence to substantiate their case, in the hopes of justifying an already planned invasion. (Later, the Bush administration fabricated an intelligence dossier on Iraq’s banned weapons.) In fact, the reason the ministry of defense felt the need to reiterate there was no evidence of a North Korean link was the persistent speculation of GNP politicians that North Korea was the culprit. Lee himself, ever hostile to his northern neighbor, said his “intuition” told him that North Korea was to blame. (18) Today, opposition parties accuse Lee of using “red scare” tactics to garner support as the June 2 elections draw near. (19) And leaders of South Korea’s four main opposition parties, as well as a number of civil groups, have issued a joint statement denouncing the government’s findings as untrustworthy. Woo Sang-ho, a spokesman for South Korea’s Democratic Party has called the probe results “insufficient proof and questioned whether the North was involved at all.” (20)

Lee announced, even before the inquiry rendered its findings, that a task force will be launched to overhaul the national security system and bulk up the military to prepare itself for threats from North Korea. (21) He even prepared a package of sanctions against the North in the event the inquiry confirmed what his intuition told him. (22) No wonder civil society groups denounced the inquiry’s findings, arguing that “The probe started after the conclusions had already been drawn.” (23)

Jung Sung-ki, a staff reporter for The Korean Times, has raised a number of questions about the inquiry’s findings. The inquiry concluded that “two North Korean submarines, one 300-ton Sango class and the other 130-ton Yeono class, were involved in the attack. Under the cover of the Sango class, the midget Yeono class submarine approached the Cheonan and launched the CHT-02D torpedo manufactured by North Korea.” But “’Sango class submarines…do not have an advanced system to guide homing weapons,’ an expert at a missile manufacturer told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity. ‘If a smaller class submarine was involved, there is a bigger question mark.’” (24)

“Rear Adm. Moon Byung-ok, spokesman for [the official inquiry] told reporters, ‘We confirmed that two submarines left their base two or three days prior to the attack and returned to the port two or three days after the assault.’” But earlier “South Korean and U.S. military authorities confirmed several times that there had been no sign of North Korean infiltration in the” area in which the Cheonan went down. (25)

“In addition, Moon’s team reversed its position on whether or not there was a column of water following an air bubble effect. Earlier, the team said there were no sailors who had witnessed a column of water. But during [a] briefing session, the team said a soldier onshore at Baengnyeong Island witnessed ‘an approximately 100-meter-high pillar of white,’ adding that the phenomenon was consistent with a shockwave and bubble effect.” (26)

The inquiry produced a torpedo propeller recovered by fishing vessels that it said perfectly match the schematics of a North Korean torpedo. “But it seemed that the collected parts had been corroding at least for several months.” (27)

Finally, the investigators “claim the Korean word written on the driving shaft of the propeller parts was same as that seen on a North Korean torpedo discovered by the South …seven years ago.” But the “’word is not inscribed on the part but written on it,’ an analyst said, adding that “’the lettering issue is dubious.’” (28)

On August 2, 1964, the United States announced that three North Vietnamese torpedo boats had launched an unprovoked attacked on the USS Maddox, a US Navy destroyer, in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident handed US president Lyndon Johnson the Congressional support he needed to step up military intervention in Vietnam. In 1971, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon report, revealed that the incident had been faked to provide a pretext for escalated military intervention. There had been no attack. The Cheonan incident has all the markings of another Gulf of Tonkin incident. And as usual, the aggressor is accusing the intended victim of an unprovoked attack to justify a policy of aggression under the pretext of self-defense.

1. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010.
2. Nicole Finnemann, “The sinking of the Cheonan”, Korea Economic Institute, April 1, 2010. http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/kei/issues/2010-04-01/1.html
3. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
4. “Birds or North Korean midget submarine?” The Korea Times, April 16, 2010.
5. Ibid.
6. “Military plays down N.K. foul play”, The Korea Herald, April 2, 2010.
7. Ibid.
8. “No subs near Cheonan: Ministry”, JoongAng Daily, April 2, 2010.
9. Jean H. Lee, “South Korea says mine from the North may have sunk warship”, The Washington Post, March 30, 2010.
10. “What caused the Cheonan to sink?” The Chosun Ilbo, March 29, 2010.
11. Ibid.
12. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
13. Blaine Harden, “Brawl Near Koreas’ Border,” The Washington Post, December 3, 2008.
14. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, The Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
15. The New York Times, June 12, 2008.
16. Mark Landler, “Clinton condemns attack on South Korean Ship”, The New York Times, May 21, 2010.
17. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010.
18. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
19. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010; Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korean sailors say blast that sank their ship came from outside vessel”, The New York Times, April 8, 2010.
20. Cho Jae-eun, “Probe satisfies some, others have doubts”, JoongAng Daily, May 21, 2010.
21. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, The Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
22. “Seoul prepares sanctions over Cheonan sinking”, The Choson Ilbo, May 13, 2010.
23. Cho Jae-eun, “Probe satisfies some, others have doubts”, JoongAng Daily, May 21, 2010.
24. Jung Sung-ki, “Questions raised about ‘smoking gun’”, The Korea Times, May 20, 2010.
25. Ibid.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.

Most of the articles cited here are posted on Tim Beal’s DPRK- North Korea website, http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~caplabtb/dprk/, an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Korea.

Updated May 23, 20110.

2 responses to “The sinking of the Cheonan: Another Gulf of Tonkin incident

  1. Thanks for re-posting this. Definitely a need-to-know piece of information.

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