Most South Koreans Skeptical of Report Blaming North Korea for Deadly Ship's Explosion in March
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On the night of March 26, 2010, the South Korean naval vessel ROKS Cheonan split in half and sunk. Forty-six sailors lost their lives. In order to determine the cause, the South Korean government created the Joint Investigation Group (JIG), with representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, and Sweden, among others. The JIG has since issued its findings in stages, culminating with the release of the official report on September 12, 2010, concluding that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine sank the Cheonan.
Despite the JIG’s goal of providing definitive proof of the cause of the incident, public skepticism has only increased. Indeed, opposition politicians, professors and several media outlets have expressed doubt in the conclusion advanced by the official report. In a poll commissioned by Seoul University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, only 32.5 percent of South Koreans expressed confidence in the report’s conclusions.
There are several sources of public skepticism, particularly from the scientific community. Furthermore, the secretive attitude adopted by the Lee government, its heavy-handed approach in dealing with the incident, and its reluctance to address or even allow for questions or concerns have served to fuel skepticism and allowed for conspiracy theories to abound. This annotation will address the pros and cons of the various theories behind the Cheonan’s sinking.
The Cheonan incident remains a point of tension between North and South Korea. But the international community and the South Korean public can play a role in defusing this potentially dangerous situation.
The Official Report vs. Alternative Theories
The bulk of the official report focuses on supporting the conclusion that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan. It analyzes the explosive composition and residue, compares the recovered drive shaft with North Korean torpedo schematics, and models the underwater explosion, shockwave, and bubble effect and subsequent damage to the Cheonan.
Skeptics have subjected this narrative to several probing questions. For instance, why was the drive shaft of the recovered torpedo relatively undamaged, and why wasn’t the No. 1 mark that identified the torpedo as North Korean in origin burned off?
The report asserts that the No. 1 marking was written prior to exposure to salt water, “since salt was precipitated on the marking and corroded interior ink was found to be risen above the ink.” The marking was made with an anti-corrosive paint, helping to explain its condition. Furthermore, expert analyses of underwater temperature change find that although the water temperature at the time of explosion was 3,000 degrees C, the temperature would drop to 28 degrees C within 0.1 second. As a result, “heat transfer would not occur all the way to the rear and thus no significant change in temperature would have resulted in the area where the marking is written.”
Second, the report posits that the battery section of the torpedo (4.125 meters long) acted as a shock absorber, shielding the propulsion section from the blast. Moreover, the shockwave created by the explosion would have immediately pushed the propulsion section backwards a distance of 30-40 meters, thereby limiting its damage.
If not a North Korean torpedo, then what might have caused the ship to sink? Alternative theories abound. The ship ran aground. It collided with another ship. It experienced an internal explosion. Or it hit a mine.
Proponents of the theory of grounding point out that the area around Baekryong Island, with its shallow water and reefs, is too narrow and dangerous for safe passage of a submarine. Second, the SOS issued by the Cheonan stated the ship had “run aground.” Finally, scratches on the lower side of the hull and damage to the ship’s propellers are consistent with grounding. Damage to the blades suggests that the Cheonan reversed engines, attempting to free itself after running aground.