Most South Koreans Skeptical of Report Blaming North Korea for Deadly Ship's Explosion in March
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Consequently, many observers predicted electoral successes for the GNP. With nearly 4,000 local races to be contested, 16 in particular – big-city mayoralties and provincial governorships – were considered key, and of these many thought the GNP could win at least nine.
The actual results came as something of a shock. With 54.5 percent voter turnout, the highest in 15 years, opposition parties dominated most races up and down the ballot. While the GNP narrowly held onto Seoul, they suffered a surprise loss in Incheon (the jurisdiction where the Cheonan sank) to Song Young-gil, a fierce Lee critic. All told, the GNP claimed victory in just six of the 16 key races. Analysts widely regarded the results as a rebuke of Lee’s post-Cheonan posturing. Most notably, subsequent polling has revealed a major generation gap in South Korean sentiment, with younger South Koreans less likely to blame North Korea for the sinking and wary of the Lee government’s aggressive response. Although a majority of South Koreans continue to identify North Korea as the likely culprit, more than 60 percent are at least somewhat skeptical of the inquiry’s findings, indicating the level of mistrust in Lee’s government.
Fog over Pyongyang
The key to any convincing indictment of North Korea must be a plausible, rational motive. Unfortunately, as with virtually any study of the isolated regime, it is difficult to verify such speculations.
But the speculation itself is not so difficult, particularly when one contextualizes the Cheonan incident within a longer narrative of Northern aggression. Victor Cha at CSIS has compiled a short list of the most prominent theories of North Korean motivation for an attack. The alleged attack might have been…
- A “disproportionate retaliation for a November 2009 clash in the West Sea that led to the loss of two North Korean lives [though estimates vary],”
- A “form of coercive diplomacy trying to force the conservative and nonengagement-inclined ROK government into negotiations in which North Korea could extract aid and assistance,”
- A “form of ‘swaggering’ to demonstrate to South Korea and to the region its recent efforts at enhancing its naval capabilities,”
- A “manifestation of internal leadership turmoil in Pyongyang and the pursuit of a hard-line external policy.” Notably, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has lent credence to this theory.
None of these scenarios seems inherently implausible. But the snag in the arguments that North Korea sank the Cheonan in a bid to “send a message” to Seoul or Washington, or perhaps especially to stabilize the Kim regime, is that North Korea has steadfastly denied responsibility for the incident in its official proclamations, even threatening “ all-out war” should South Korea use the accusation as a basis for retaliatory measures. Perhaps North Korea overplayed its hand and has subsequently sought to avoid any repercussions for an act of aggression. But this would be a change from previous tendencies to explain aggressive behavior as retaliation for South Korean provocations or to claim victory where other parties see defeat. The very magnitude of the incident, which would be the deadliest act of aggression since the 1953 armistice, could even threaten the regime’s very survival, which, as sophisticated Korea watchers have always noted, is its one overriding imperative. Short of an attempt to consolidate the regime’s power as it prepares for succession (which would not exactly lack precedent), it is hard to see how an order to attack the Cheonan could have emanated from the top. The perceived irrationality of the attack has even led to the speculation that rogue elements within the military may have carried it out.