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Most South Koreans Skeptical of Report Blaming North Korea for Deadly Ship's Explosion in March

The incident added tension between North and South Korea. But the international community and the South Korean public can help defuse this potentially dangerous situation.

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The gas turbine room, meanwhile, sustained significant damage, with a portion of it breaking away from the rest of the ship. The bulkheads surrounding the gas turbine room as well as the decks above were heavily damaged. The gas turbine room is located in the middle of the ship, along the break plane. However, other physical evidence, most importantly the inward bending of the hull and the lack of traces of fire or fragmentation damage, point away from a gas turbine explosion. In particular, in an explosion, the turbine blades would fragment and damage nearby walls. No such damage was evident. Finally, at the time of the incident the Cheonan was operating at low speed (6.7 knots), and therefore the gas turbine engine was not in use.

According to a final alternative theory, the Cheonan encountered an underwater mine. The official report does speculate that an underwater mine would carry a sufficient payload to cause the damage observed. But no fragments were found embedded in the hull or in the surrounding area. Furthermore, tidal currents would significantly affect the depth and position of moored mines, making them at best, an unreliable system. The report also cites a lack of evidence indicating a contact explosion, such as heat scoring, impact zone, or explosive fragments. Additionally, numerous fishing vessels traverse these waters and have never encountered mines. Indeed, during its patrol, the Cheonan itself passed over the site 10 times without any prior incident. Finally, no vessels involved in rescue and recovery following the incident reported observing or coming into contact with any underwater mines.

Problems and Questions Persist

However, the official report is by no means exhaustive in countering all alternative claims and answering all questions. Indeed, there are several inconsistencies and omissions that cast doubt on the veracity of the report and on the conclusion it advances.

Such omissions include serious treatment of the “pillar of white light” observed by lookouts on Baekryong Island. Many have pointed out that a torpedo would not produce such an effect. The report concludes that this was a water plume but does not elaborate further, and this assertion is not corroborated by the testimony of the survivors. Indeed, the Lee government has generally restricted access to the surviving sailors. Public access to the survivors' full testimony has also been similarly restricted, creating further public doubt over the official version of events.

Also conspicuously absent from the report is any explanation as to why no other fragments of the torpedo were found. Evidence typically associated with a torpedo attack includes fragments of the torpedo embedded in the hull of the ship. However, no such fragments were observed or collected either from the ship or the surrounding area. Only the telltale drive shaft and motor of the torpedo were found. It remains possible that the strong currents in the area carried other fragments away or sufficiently hid them, but no such explanation as to their absence is offered.

Questions have also been raised over discrepancies regarding the time the incident occurred. The initial time of the incident was announced as occurring at 21:45. This was subsequently revised to between 21:20 and 21:30, before fixed at 21:22. Furthermore, according to KNTDS, the Cheonan was still moving at 21:25, three minutes after being attacked. These discrepancies are not mentioned in the report but have been a source of public skepticism.

Finally, any discussion regarding the failure to detect the enemy submarine or the torpedo is absent from the final report. A possible explanation might be that sonar equipment is much less reliable in shallow, choppy water or near underwater rock formations, such as the area in which the incident took place. In such conditions, sonar capabilities can be reduced by as much as 60 percent, greatly decreasing its chances of detecting enemy action. However, no such explanation is offered, and indeed, the report doesn’t address the Cheonan’s failure to detect enemy action.

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