Did a North Korean Torpedo Really Sink That South Korean Military Vesselt?
Editor's Note: It's emerging that the South Korean and US Government's official story that North Korea torpedoed the Cheonan may not be entirely true. The following is a compilation of a blog entry from the blog Brewerstroupe that discredits the official line, and a recent article posted on New America Media that explores whether the Cheonan was sunk by an American mine.
On March 26 this year, the Cheonan, a South Korean Corvette, sank in waters off Baengnyeong Island. Initial reports from Naval and Intelligence chiefs ruled out foul play:
Won Se-hoon, director of the National Intelligence Service, was quoted as saying during a parliamentary committee session that to his knowledge, there was no direct link between North Korea and the sunken ship.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said that he had heard nothing to implicate any other country in the incident.
``Obviously, the full investigation needs to go forward. But to my knowledge, there is no reason to believe or to be concerned that that may have been the cause,'' he said.
Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ruled out the possibility, saying, “No North Korean warships have been detected, and there is no possibility of their approaching the waters where the accident took place.”....
“We closely watched the movement of the North’s vessels, including submarines and semi-submersibles, at the time of the sinking,” said Commodore Lee Gi-sik, chief of information operations under the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul, during a media briefing. “But [the South’s] military did not detect any North Korean submarines near the countries’ western sea border.”
"If a single torpedo or a floating mine caused a naval patrol vessel to split in half and sink, we will have to rewrite our military doctrine," said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. Instead, he believes an accident within the vessel is to blame.......
Former Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Song Young-moo, said, "Some people are pointing the finger at North Korea, but anyone with knowledge about the waters where the shipwreck occurred would not draw that conclusion so easily." Experts say those waters are only 25 m deep and characterized by rapid currents, making it very difficult for North Korean submarines or semi-submersible vessels to operate.
Members of the right wing* Government of Lee Myung Bak took a different tack:
A torpedo is among the "most likely" causes for a South Korean naval ship that sank close to the disputed border with North Korea last month, killing at least 40 sailors, South Korea's defense minister said.
At this point, Lee's government put a clamp on speculation, gagging official spokesmen.
On May 20 the South Korean government announced that it has overwhelming evidence that one of its warships was sunk by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine. The World's press trumpeted that the "International Inquiry" had unanimously agreed that a North Korean torpedo was the culprit.
This was a slight exaggeration. The committee was not "international" in any bi-partisan sense, it comprised North Korean adversaries America, Australia, Britain and neutral Sweden. Neither was it "unanimous. CBS news reported"
Only Sweden, which also sent investigators, is a reluctant partner in blaming the North Koreans.
The "evidence" of North Korean involvement does not pass the sniff test. If indeed the remains of a torpedo was found in the waters near the sinking, there is nothing that links it to the incident and much spent ordnance lies in the area. Compare the condition of the torpedo with that of the sunken ship.
Dissent within South Korea, unnoticed by the Western Press, is growing.
Mr S.C.Shin, one of the original inspectors of the wreck, has written an open letter to Secretary of State Clinton. He maintains that the ship grounded in the shallows of Baengnyeong Island and suffered a collision, probably with a vessel sent to her aid, then sank. Shin is now being prosecuted for "spreading false rumours"
Shin is not alone:
Prime Minister Chung Un Chan ordered the government to find a way to stop groundless rumors spreading on the Cheonan’s sinking, the JoongAng Daily said yesterday. Prosecutors questioned a former member of the panel that probed the incident over his critical comments, the paper said. The Joint Chiefs of Staff sued a lawmaker for defamation after she said video footage of the ship splitting apart existed, a claim the military denies, Yonhap News reported.
Almost one in four South Koreans say they don’t trust the findings of the multinational panel, according to a poll commissioned by Hankook Ilbo on May 24.
Park Sun-won has also been threatened with prosecution for voicing dissent:
Gagging the South Korean public has already been taking place openly. The Ministry of National Defense and the military have pressed defamation charges against former Cheong Wa Dae (the presidential office in South Korea or Blue House) National Security Strategy Secretary Park Sun-won.
South Korean religious leaders question conclusions of the Cheonan sinking investigation
Why have the survivors been strictly separated and controlled since the tragedy happened? Why are they not allowed to say anything about it, though they know the truth best?
It is interesting to note that the Japanese Prime Minister has cited this incident when delivering his unpopular decision to the people of Okinawa:
"TOKYO — Washington and Tokyo agreed Friday to keep a contentious U.S. Marine base in Okinawa, with Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama highlighting the importance of the Japanese-American security alliance amid rising tension on the nearby Korean peninsula. "I am sincerely sorry for not being able to keep my word, and what is more, having hurt Okinawans in the end," he said. "In Asia, there still remain unstable and uncertain factors, including the sinking of a South Korean warship by North Korea," he said.
Japan's Social Democratic Party, SDP, has decided to leave the ruling coalition government amid a row over the controversial presence of the US military in the country.
The political fortunes of Lee Myung Bak have improved dramatically.
“The investigation results will likely emerge as a key issue, pushing aside all other factors ahead of the elections,” said Lee Chul-hee of the Korea Society Opinion Institute. “The increased attention on national security could drive younger voters away from polls while uniting the older, right-wing voters - the exact effect the ruling party is hoping for.”
*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.)
BUCHEON, South Korea — The sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, apparently by a North Korean torpedo, has provoked an international crisis that has embroiled big powers like the United States and China. But here in South Korea, it has had another effect: buoying the country’s once embattled conservative, pro-American president, Lee Myung-bak.
Soon after taking office two years ago, Mr. Lee appeared at risk of losing public support, as he faced mass demonstrations on the streets of Seoul against the import of United States beef. Now, political experts are talking of the “Cheonan effect,” as polls show more than half of voters approve of the president and his tougher line toward the North.
Did an American Mine Sink South Korean Ship? -- by Yoichi Shimatsu, New America Media
BEIJING - South Korean Prime Minister Lee Myung-bak has claimed "overwhelming evidence" that a North Korean torpedo sank the corvette Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 sailors. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that there’s "overwhelming evidence" in favor of the theory that North Korea sank the South Korean Navy warship Cheonan. But the articles of proof presented so far by military investigators to an official inquiry board have been scanty and inconsistent.
There’s yet another possibility, that a U.S. rising mine sank the Cheonan in a friendly-fire accident.
In the recent U.S.-China strategic talks in Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese side dismissed the official scenario presented by the Americans and their South Korean allies as not credible. This conclusion was based on an independent technical assessment by the Chinese military, according to a Beijing-based military affairs consultant to the People Liberation Army.
Hardly any of the relevant facts that counter the official verdict have made headline news in either South Korea or its senior ally, the United States.
The first telltale sign of an official smokescreen involves the location of the Choenan sinking - Byeongnyeong Island (pronounced Pyongnang) in the Yellow Sea. On the westernmost fringe of South Korean territory, the island is dominated by a joint U.S.-Korean base for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations. The sea channel between Byeongnyeong and the North Korean coast is narrow enough for both sides to be in artillery range of each other.
Anti-sub warfare is based on sonar and acoustic detection of underwater craft. Since civilian traffic is not routed through the channel, the noiseless conditions are near-perfect for picking up the slightest agitation, for example from a torpedo and any submarine that might fire it.
North Korea admits it does not possess an underwater craft stealthy enough to slip past the advanced sonar and audio arrays around Byeongnyeong Island, explained North Korean intelligence analyst Kim Myong Chol in a news release. "The sinking took place not in North Korean waters but well inside tightly guarded South Korean waters, where a slow-moving North Korean submarine would have great difficulty operating covertly and safely, unless it was equipped with AIP (air-independent propulsion) technology."
The Cheonan sinking occurred in the aftermath of the March 11-18 Foal Eagle Exercise, which included anti-submarine maneuvers by a joint U.S.-South Korean squadron of five missile ships. A mystery surrounds the continued presence of the U.S. missile cruisers for more than eight days after the ASW exercise ended.
Only one reporter, Joohee Cho of ABC News, picked up the key fact that the Foal Eagle flotilla curiously included the USNS Salvor, a diving-support ship with a crew of 12 Navy divers. The lack of any minesweepers during the exercise leaves only one possibility: the Salvor was laying bottom mines.
Ever since an American cruiser was damaged by one of Saddam Hussein's rising mines, also known as bottom mines, in the Iraq War, the U.S. Navy has pushed a crash program to develop a new generation of mines. The U.S. Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command has also been focused on developing counterparts to the fearsome Chinese naval "assassin's mace," which is propelled by a rocket engine.
A rising mine, which is effective only in shallow waters, rests atop a small platform on the sea floor under a camouflage of sand and gravel. Its detection system uses acoustics and magnetic readings to pick up enemy ships and submarines. When activated, jets of compressed air or solid-fuel rockets lift the bomb, which self-guides toward the magnetic center of the target. The blast rips the keel, splitting the ship or submarine into two neat pieces, just as was done to the RKOS Cheonan.
A lateral-fired torpedo, in contrast, "holes" the target's hull, tilting the vessel in the classic war movie manner. The South Korean government displayed to the press the intact propeller shaft of a torpedo that supposedly struck the Cheonan. Since torpedoes travel between 40-50 knots per hour (which is faster than collision tests for cars), a drive shaft would crumble upon impacting the hull and its bearing and struts would be shattered or bent by the high-powered blast.
The initial South Korean review stated that the explosive was gunpowder, which would conform to North Korea's crude munitions. This claim was later overturned by the inquiry board, which found the chemical residues to be similar to German advanced explosives. Due to sanctions against Pyongyang and its few allies, it is hardly credible that North Korea could obtain NATO-grade ordnance.
Thus, the mystery centers on the USNS Salvor, which happened to be yet right near Byeongyang Island at the time of the Cheonan sinking and far from its home base, Pearl Harbor. The inquiry board in Seoul has not questioned the officers and divers of the Salvor, which oddly is not under the command of the 7th Fleet but controlled by the innocuous-sounding Military Sealift Command. Diving-support ships like the Salvor are closely connected with the Office of Naval Intelligence since their duties include secret operations such as retrieving weapons from sunken foreign ships, scouting harbor channels and laying mines, as when the Salvor trained Royal Thai Marine divers in mine-laying in the Gulf of Thailand in 2006, for example.
The Salvor's presence points to an inadvertent release of a rising mine, perhaps because its activation system was not switched off. A human error or technical glitch is very much within the realm of possibility due to the swift current and strong tides that race through the Byeongnyeong Channel. The arduous task of mooring the launch platforms to the sea floor allows the divers precious little time for double-checking the electronic systems.
If indeed it was an American rising mine that sank the Cheonan, it would constitute a friendly-fire accident. That in itself is not grounds for a criminal investigation against the presidential office and, at worst, amounts only to negligence by the military. However, any attempt to falsify evidence and engage in a media cover-up for political purposes constitutes tampering, fraud, perjury and possibly treason.
Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times, is an environmental consultant and a commentator on Asian affairs for CCTV-9 Dialogue.