The sinking of the Cheonan: Another Gulf of Tonkin incident
By Stephen Gowans
While the South Korean government announced on May 20 that it has overwhelming evidence that one of its warships was sunk by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine, there is, in fact, no direct link between North Korea and the sunken ship. And it seems very unlikely that North Korea had anything to do with it.
That’s not my conclusion. It’s the conclusion of Won See-hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence. Won told a South Korean parliamentary committee in early April, less than two weeks after the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sank in waters off Baengnyeong Island, that there was no evidence linking North Korea to the Cheonan’s sinking. (1)
South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young backed him up, pointing out that the Cheonan’s crew had not detected a torpedo (2), while Lee Ki-sik, head of the marine operations office at the South Korean joint chiefs of staff agreed that “No North Korean warships have been detected…(in) the waters where the accident took place.” (3)
Notice he said “accident.”
Defense Ministry officials added that they had not detected any North Korean submarines in the area at the time of the incident. (4) According to Lee, “We didn’t detect any movement by North Korean submarines near” the area where the Cheonan went down. (5)
When speculation persisted that the Cheonan had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo, the Defense Ministry called another press conference to reiterate “there was no unusual North Korean activities detected at the time of the disaster.” (6)
A ministry spokesman, Won Tae-jae, told reporters that “With regard to this case, no particular activities by North Korean submarines or semi-submarines…have been verified. I am saying again that there were no activities that could be directly linked to” the Cheonan’s sinking. (7)
Rear Admiral Lee, the head of the marine operations office, added that, “We closely watched the movement of the North’s vessels, including submarines and semi-submersibles, at the time of the sinking. But military did not detect any North Korean submarines near the country’s western sea border.” (8)
North Korea has vehemently denied any involvement in the sinking.
So, a North Korean submarine is now said to have fired a torpedo which sank the Cheonan, but in the immediate aftermath of the sinking the South Korean navy detected no North Korean naval vessels, including submarines, in the area. Indeed, immediately following the incident defense minister Lee ruled out a North Korean torpedo attack, noting that a torpedo would have been spotted, and no torpedo had been spotted. (9)
The case gets weaker still.
It’s unlikely that a single torpedo could split a 1,200 ton warship in two. Baek Seung-joo, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis says that “If a single torpedo or floating mine causes a naval patrol vessel to split in half and sink, we will have to rewrite our military doctrine.” (10)
The Cheonan sank in shallow, rapidly running, waters, in which it’s virtually impossible for submarines to operate. “Some people are pointing the finger at North Korea,” notes Song Young-moo, a former South Korean navy chief of staff, “but anyone with knowledge about the waters where the shipwreck occurred would not draw that conclusion so easily.” (11)
Contrary to what looks like an improbable North-Korea-torpedo-hypothesis, the evidence points to the Cheonan splitting in two and sinking because it ran aground upon a reef, a real possibility given the shallow waters in which the warship was operating. According to Go Yeong-jae, the South Korean Coast Guard captain who rescued 56 of the stricken warship’s crew, he “received an order …that a naval patrol vessel had run aground in the waters 1.2 miles to the southwest of Baengnyeong Island, and that we were to move there quickly to rescue them.” (12)
Some members of South Korea’s opposition parties – which have been highly critical of the government for blaming North Korea for the disaster– “contend that the boat was sunk either by a ‘friendly fire’ torpedo during a training exercise or that it broke part while trying to get off a reef.” (13) Whatever the cause, they don’t believe the findings of the official inquiry.
So how is it that what looked like no North Korean involvement in the Cheonan’s sinking, according to the South Korean military in the days immediately following the incident, has now become, one and half months later, an open and shut case of North Korean aggression, according to government-appointed investigators?
The answer has much to do with the electoral fortunes of South Korea’s ruling Grand National Party, and the party’s need to marshal support for a tougher stance on the North. Lurking in the wings are US arms manufacturers who stand to profit if South Korean president Lee Myung-bak wins public backing for beefed up spending on sonar equipment and warships to deter a North Korean threat – all the more likely with the Cheonan incident chalked up to North Korean aggression.
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.) Fabricating a case against the North serves Lee in a number of ways. If voters in the South can be persuaded that the North is indeed a menace – and it looks like this is exactly what is happening – Lee’s hawkish policies will be embraced as the right ones for present circumstances. This will prove immeasurably helpful in upcoming mayoral and gubernatorial elections in June. (14)
What’s more, Lee’s foreign policy rests on the goal of forcing the collapse of North Korea. When he took office in February 2008, he set about reversing a 10-year-old policy of unconditional aid to the North. He has also refused to move ahead on cross-border economic projects. (15) Lee’s goal, as Selig Harrison, the US establishment’s foremost liberal expert on Korea describes it, is to “once again [seek] the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.” (16) Forcing the collapse of North Korea was the main policy of past right-wing and military governments to which Lee’s government is historically linked. The claim that the sinking of the Cheonan is due to an unprovoked North Korean torpedo attack makes it easier for Lee to drum up support for his confrontational stance.
But it does more than that. It also helps Lee move ahead with his goal of re-unifying the Korean peninsula by engineering the collapse of the North. Lee has used the Cheonan incident to: cut off trade with the North; block the North’s use of the South’s shipping lanes; argue for stepped up international sanctions against Pyongyang; call for the beefing up of the South’s military; and issue a virtual declaration of war, branding North Korea the South’s principal foe and announcing that “It is now time for the North Korean regime to change.” (17) Seoul already spends $20 billion per year on its armed forces, almost three times more than the $7 billion Pyongyang allocates to military spending. South Korea has one of the most miserly social welfare systems in the industrialized world, in part because it spends so much on defense. (18) Only 28 percent of the South’s working population is covered by a government pension plan, a state of affairs that has given rise to “’silver’ job fairs, established to find jobs for people aged 60 and over.” (19) Even so, the South’s military spending as a percentage of its GDP is a drop in the bucket compared to the North’s. With a smaller economy, North Korea struggles (and fails) to keep up with its more formidably armed neighbor, channeling a crushingly large percentage of its GDP into defense. It is caught in a difficult bind in which it not only has to defend its borders against South Korea, but against the 30,000 US troops stationed on the Korean peninsula and twice as many more in nearby Japan. By expanding the South’s military budget, and using the Cheonan affair to put the country on a virtual war footing, Lee forces the North to either divert even more of its limited resources to its military – a reaction which will ratchet up the misery factor inside the North as guns take even more of a precedence over butter – or leave itself inadequately equipped to defend itself.
This meshes well with calls from the RAND Corporation for South Korea to buy sensors to detect North Korean submarines and more warships to intercept North Korean naval vessels. (20) An unequivocal US-lackey – protesters have called the security perimeter around Lee’s office “the U.S. state of South Korea” (21) – Lee would be pleased to hand US corporations fat contracts to furnish the South Korean military with more hardware. Lee’s right-wing party and US military contractors win, while North Koreans and the bulk of Koreans of the south are sacrificed on the altar of South Korean militarism.
The United States, too, has motivations to fabricate a case against North Korea. One is to justify the continued presence, 65 years after the end of WWII, of US troops on Japanese soil. Many Japanese bristle at what is effectively a permanent occupation of their country by more than a token contingent of US troops. There are 60,000 US soldiers, airmen and sailors in Japan. Washington, and the Japanese government – which, when it isn’t willingly collaborating with its own occupiers, is forced into submission by the considerable leverage Washington exercises — justifies the US troop presence through the sheer sophistry of presenting North Korea as an ongoing threat. The claim that North Korea sunk the Cheonan in an unprovoked attack strengthens Washington’s case for occupation. Not surprisingly, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has seized on the Cheonan incident to underline “the importance of the America-Japanese alliance, and the presence of American troops on Japanese soil.” (22)
Given these political realities, it comes as no surprise that from the start members of Lee’s party blamed the sinking of the Cheonan on a North Korean torpedo, (23) just as members of the Bush administration immediately blamed 9/11 on Saddam Hussein, and then proceeded to look for evidence to substantiate their case, in the hopes of justifying an already planned invasion. (Later, the Bush administration fabricated an intelligence dossier on Iraq’s banned weapons.) In fact, the reason the ministry of defense felt the need to reiterate there was no evidence of a North Korean link was the persistent speculation of GNP politicians that North Korea was the culprit. Lee himself, ever hostile to his northern neighbor, said his “intuition” told him that North Korea was to blame. (24) Today, opposition parties accuse Lee of using “red scare” tactics to garner support as the June 2 elections draw near. (25) And leaders of South Korea’s four main opposition parties, as well as a number of civil groups, have issued a joint statement denouncing the government’s findings as untrustworthy. Woo Sang-ho, a spokesman for South Korea’s Democratic Party has called the probe results “insufficient proof and questioned whether the North was involved at all.” (26)
Lee announced, even before the inquiry rendered its findings, that a task force will be launched to overhaul the national security system and bulk up the military to prepare itself for threats from North Korea. (27) He even prepared a package of sanctions against the North in the event the inquiry confirmed what his intuition told him. (28) No wonder civil society groups denounced the inquiry’s findings, arguing that “The probe started after the conclusions had already been drawn.” (29)
Jung Sung-ki, a staff reporter for The Korean Times, has raised a number of questions about the inquiry’s findings. The inquiry concluded that “two North Korean submarines, one 300-ton Sango class and the other 130-ton Yeono class, were involved in the attack. Under the cover of the Sango class, the midget Yeono class submarine approached the Cheonan and launched the CHT-02D torpedo manufactured by North Korea.” But “’Sango class submarines…do not have an advanced system to guide homing weapons,’ an expert at a missile manufacturer told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity. ‘If a smaller class submarine was involved, there is a bigger question mark.’” (30)
“Rear Adm. Moon Byung-ok, spokesman for [the official inquiry] told reporters, ‘We confirmed that two submarines left their base two or three days prior to the attack and returned to the port two or three days after the assault.’” But earlier “South Korean and U.S. military authorities confirmed several times that there had been no sign of North Korean infiltration in the” area in which the Cheonan went down. (31)
“In addition, Moon’s team reversed its position on whether or not there was a column of water following an air bubble effect” (caused by an underwater explosion.) “Earlier, the team said there were no sailors who had witnessed a column of water. But during [a] briefing session, the team said a soldier onshore at Baengnyeong Island witnessed ‘an approximately 100-meter-high pillar of white,’ adding that the phenomenon was consistent with a shockwave and bubble effect.” (32)
The inquiry produced a torpedo propeller recovered by fishing vessels that it said perfectly match the schematics of a North Korean torpedo. “But it seemed that the collected parts had been corroding at least for several months.” (33)
Finally, the investigators “claim the Korean word written on the driving shaft of the propeller parts was the same as that seen on a North Korean torpedo discovered by the South …seven years ago.” But the “’word is not inscribed on the part but written on it,’ an analyst said, adding that “’the lettering issue is dubious.’” (34)
On August 2, 1964, the United States announced that three North Vietnamese torpedo boats had launched an unprovoked attacked on the USS Maddox, a US Navy destroyer, in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident handed US president Lyndon Johnson the Congressional support he needed to step up military intervention in Vietnam. In 1971, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon report, revealed that the incident had been faked to provide a pretext for escalated military intervention. There had been no attack.
The Cheonan incident has all the markings of another Gulf of Tonkin incident. And as usual, the aggressor is accusing the intended victim of an unprovoked attack to justify a policy of aggression under the pretext of self-defense.
1. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010.
2. Nicole Finnemann, “The sinking of the Cheonan”, Korea Economic Institute, April 1, 2010. http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/kei/issues/2010-04-01/1.html
3. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
4. “Birds or North Korean midget submarine?” The Korea Times, April 16, 2010.
6. “Military plays down N.K. foul play”, The Korea Herald, April 2, 2010.
8. “No subs near Cheonan: Ministry”, JoongAng Daily, April 2, 2010.
9. Jean H. Lee, “South Korea says mine from the North may have sunk warship”, The Washington Post, March 30, 2010.
10. “What caused the Cheonan to sink?” The Chosun Ilbo, March 29, 2010.
12. “Military leadership adding to Cheonan chaos with contradictory statements”, The Hankyoreh, March 31, 2010.
13. Barbara Demick, “In South Korea, competing reactions to sinking of warship”, The Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2010.
14. Framing the Cheonan sinking as an act of unprovoked north Korean aggression did not benefit Lee Myung-bak and his GNP party as much as Lee and the party may have hoped. Indeed, the GNP was disappointed with its showing in the June 2 elections. Even so, on the eve of the election, Martin Fackler, writing in the New York Times of June 1, 2010 (Ship sinking aids ruling party in S. Korean vote) noted that:
“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 about the “Cheonan effect,” as polls show that more than half of expected voters approve of the president and his tougher line toward the North.
“Nowhere is the current upwelling of popular support more apparent than in polling for the local elections to be held across South Korea on Wednesday. Mr. Lee’s Grand National Party, whose candidates once faced tight races in some districts, now appears poised to sweep the most important races, including hotly contested mayoral elections in Seoul and the nearby port of Incheon.
“Kim Moon-soo, the conservative governor of a province outside Seoul, just two weeks ago was in an uphill battle for re-election against a liberal opponent. Now, polls show him with a comfortable 15 percentage point lead. ”
“Politicians and political analysts agree that voters decisively turned to the Grand National Party after the announcement on May 20 of the results of an international inquiry into the sinking that found North Korea responsible. Political analysts said the results were enough to persuade many undecided voters to swing to the conservatives, who are seen as stronger on defense.”
15. Blaine Harden, “Brawl Near Koreas’ Border,” The Washington Post, December 3, 2008.
16. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
17. “Full text of President’s Lee’s national address”, The Korea Times, May 24, 2010.
18. Selig S. Harrison, “What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.
According to Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, writing in The New York Times of May 30, 2010 (“U.S. aid to South Korea with naval defense plan”), there are 28,500 US troops in south Korea. South Korea has between 600,000 and 700,000 troops. The North has 1.2 million active-duty military personnel, but “many are poorly trained, or put to work building housing.” The core of the north Korean military is comprised of 80,000 special operations forces.
Hence, there are about 1 million combat ready US and south Korean troops on the Korean peninsula posed against slightly more north Korean troops, many of whom are performing non-military functions. The rough equality in number of troops is preponderated by the sophistication of south Korean’s military equipment and its ability to call on US military superiority in the event of a conflict.
19. Su-Hyun Lee, “Aging and seeking work in South Korea,” The New York Times, September 11, 2009.
20. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, The Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, writing in The New York Times of May 30, 2010 (“U.S. aid to South Korea with naval defense plan”) noted that:
(i) senior American officials were surprised “how easily [the Cheonan] was sunk by what an international investigation concluded was a North Korean torpedo fired from a midget submarine”; and
(ii) the waters in which the Cheonan sunk were considered too shallow to allow a submarine to operate and therefore did not warrant close monitoring.
There are two inferences that can be drawn from these observations:
(A) The inquiry’s findings are improbable;
(B) The north Koreans are devious and more formidable than we thought and therefore the south Koreans need to buy monitoring equipment from US arms manufacturers to plug this national security hole.
Predictably, The New York Times reporters opted for inference B. Inference A wasn’t considered, presumably unthinkable in the newspaper’s newsroom.
21. The New York Times, June 12, 2008.
22. Mark Landler, “Clinton condemns attack on South Korean Ship”, The New York Times, May 21, 2010.
23. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010.
According to the JoongAng Daily of May 29, 2010 (“Probe member summoned on false rumor allegations”) Shin Sang-cheol, a member of the taskforce that investigated the sinking of the Cheonan, but who was replaced for “arousing public mistrust in the probe”, “has repeatedly claimed that the sinking was just an accident, and that the South had tampered with evidence to blame the North.” Shin, linked to the opposition Democratic Party, served on a south Korean patrol boat in the Yellow Sea as a Navy second lieutenant. Later he worked for seven years at a shipbuilding firm.
Meanwhile, Park Sun-won, former south Korean president Roh Moo-hyun’s secretary for national security, and now a visiting fellow at the Brooking Institution, has accused the Lee administration of concealing information about the sinking.
Both men are under investigation by south Korean authorities for “spreading false rumors,” clearly an effort by Seoul to deter anyone in the South from pointing out the weaknesses of the inquiry’s findings.
Shin’s and Park’s motivations for calling the probe’s findings into question, however, may be the same as the motivations of GNP politicians for accusing the north Koreans of sinking the warship: partisan political advantage. Both Shin and Park are associated with the Democratic Party, whose electoral fortunes in the impending elections are likely to suffer as a result of the GNP concocting a “red-scare” incident to rally support around. It’s in their partisan interests to poke holes in the inquiry’s findings.
24. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
25. Kang Hyun-kyung, “Ruling camp differs over NK involvement in disaster”, The Korea Times, April 7, 2010; Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korean sailors say blast that sank their ship came from outside vessel”, The New York Times, April 8, 2010.
26. Cho Jae-eun, “Probe satisfies some, others have doubts”, JoongAng Daily, May 21, 2010.
27. “Kim So-hyun, “A touchstone of Lee’s leadership”, The Korea Herald, May 13, 2010.
28. “Seoul prepares sanctions over Cheonan sinking”, The Choson Ilbo, May 13, 2010.
29. Cho Jae-eun, “Probe satisfies some, others have doubts”, JoongAng Daily, May 21, 2010.
30. Jung Sung-ki, “Questions raised about ‘smoking gun’”, The Korea Times, May 20, 2010.
Most of the articles cited here are posted on Tim Beal’s DPRK- North Korea website, http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~caplabtb/dprk/, an invaluable resource for anyone interested in Korea.
Updated June 3, 2010.