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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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There are also several inconsistencies within the report itself that are not addressed. Chief among them is the difference in the conclusion that the torpedo carried an explosive charge between 200-300 kilograms (depending on depth), later averaged to 250 kilos, and the simulations used to model the incident that used a range of charges from 250 to 300 to 360 kilos of TNT (at depths of six, seven, and seven to nine meters respectively), with each producing similar results. The simulation suggests that an underwater explosion similar to the one modeled sank the Cheonan. However, almost all of the simulations pictured in the report model a 360 kilo explosion at a depth of seven meters, and it is not clear that the simulated damage is as great as actually occurred. This is particularly troublesome given the discrepancy between the charge size in the conclusion (250 kilos) and the charge size in the simulation (360 kilos). The report does not show any simulations that model different charge size and depths.

Finally, Jae-Jung Suh and Seunghun Lee dispute the Investigation Group’s assertion that the aluminum oxides found on the ship and torpedo is evidence of explosive residue. For the aluminum oxide to be the result of an explosion, they counter, the ratio of the oxygen atoms to aluminum atoms should be 1:0.2. Instead it is 1:0.9, which is a common ratio of a different type of aluminum oxide altogether: rust.

The Cheonan Political Game

Determining the culprit behind the Cheonan sinking requires sorting through a sea of complex computer models, advanced metallurgy, and doctorate-level ballistics. But the incident must also be understood within a political context.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s Grand National Party (GNP), a conservative party that has assumed a hawkish posture toward the North, swept into power in 2007 in a landslide victory over the faltering center-left Democratic Party (DP). But a series of developments battered Lee’s party and damaged its credibility. These included controversial Cabinet appointments, the unpopular opening of Korean markets to American beef producers, a crackdown on an eviction protest in Seoul that left six people dead, controversial handling of public works projects, efforts to remove a “leftist” Jogye Buddhist monk, and the acquittal of the embattled former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook from the previous Roh administration. As a result, the GNP found itself confronting a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment in advance of South Korea’s regional elections.

Within this context, Cheonan skeptics and government critics have argued that Lee’s party has exploited the Cheonan sinking to pursue a cynical brand of national security politics. The May 20 release of the JIG’s preliminary report coincided with the official start of the local government elections campaign. It also came just three days before a national first-year commemoration of the late President Roh Moo-hyun’s suicide that would serve as an emotional flashpoint for Lee’s opposition. The May 20 date appears even more suspect given the apparently rushed nature of the report’s findings.

Lee’s government moved quickly thereafter to file or threaten defamation charges against leading figures who questioned the government’s findings, doubted a link to North Korea, or proffered alternative explanations. The government’s urgent and decisive actions against even reputable skeptics left little doubt that the GNP had hitched its political fortunes to the official Cheonan narrative, whatever its other merits or deficiencies. There was even talk of the GNP rolling back hard won democratic gains in the country. In response, even as some GNP leaders urged the de-politicization of the issue, GNP Chairman Chung Mong-joon told a radio interviewer that, “The Democratic Party and leftists, who have made a number of remarks that seem to stand up for North Korea, protect it and defend it, are people who should be taking as much of the responsibility as North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il.” The Korea Times called these sorts of tactics the GNP’s “ red scare.”

 
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