Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cheonan Conspiracies Continue (and with good reason)

Said best by CNN:
The United States is going all out this week to show support for its key Asian ally, South Korea, in the wake of one of its war ships being sunk, as President Barack Obama dispatched the secretaries of State and Defense to the Korean peninsula.
The U.S. delegation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will hold a first-ever meeting with their South Korean counterparts in Seoul to discuss numerous diplomatic and military issues concerning North Korea. While the high-level meeting has long been planned in accordance with the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean conflict, both countries are using the opportunity to send a message to North Korea during heightened tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang.
However, questions still loom and many South Koreans still have questions and are demanding answers about the sinking of the Cheonan.  The LA Times just published an article best summarizing most of the points of concern that are fueling the conspiracy theories.  Here are the highlights of the article...
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calls the evidence "overwhelming" that the Cheonan, a South Korean warship that sank in March, was hit by a North Korean torpedo. Vice President Joe Biden has cited the South Korean-led panel investigating the sinking as a model of transparency.
But challenges to the official version of events are coming from an unlikely place: within South Korea.
Armed with dossiers of their own scientific studies and bolstered by conspiracy theories, critics dispute the findings announced May 20 by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, which pointed a finger at Pyongyang.
They also question why Lee made the announcement nearly two months after the ship's sinking, on the very day campaigning opened for fiercely contested local elections. Many accuse the conservative leader of using the deaths of 46 sailors to stir up anti-communist sentiment and sway the vote.
President Lee could simply be a massive tool and is guilty of trying to politicize a national tragedy.  However, the timing of both the incident itself and when the findings were realized does make it look orchestrated to effect an election cycle.  This would make it either intentional or a fantastic coincidence.
The critics, mostly but not all from the opposition, say it is unlikely that the impoverished North Korean regime could have pulled off a perfectly executed hit against a superior military power, sneaking a submarine into the area and slipping away without detection. They also wonder whether the evidence of a torpedo attack was misinterpreted, or even fabricated.
Of course the South Koreans have anti-submarine detection systems in place.  The fact that they all failed seems to be something that does not alarm or concern anyone who believes the Cheonan was legitimately attacked.  I do not think the general public should be believing that sneak attacks from submarines are impossible to thwart.  If every South Korean boat out there is always as vulnerable to a North Korean submarine as the Cheonan was, then South Korea and the United States are woefully unprepared against an enemy that is continuously suffering from massive famines within its own borders.
"I couldn't find the slightest sign of an explosion," said Shin Sang-chul, a former shipbuilding executive-turned-investigative journalist. "The sailors drowned to death. Their bodies were clean. We didn't even find dead fish in the sea."
Shin, who was appointed to the joint investigative panel by the opposition Democratic Party, inspected the damaged ship with other experts April 30. He was removed from the panel shortly afterward, he says, because he had voiced a contrary opinion: that the Cheonan hit ground in the shallow water off the Korean peninsula and then damaged its hull trying to get off a reef.
"It was the equivalent of a simple traffic accident at sea," Shin said.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Shin was removed because of "limited expertise, a lack of objectivity and scientific logic," and that he was "intentionally creating public mistrust" in the investigation.
Even if there is no conspiracy and it was overwhelmingly obvious that North Korea was responsible, kicking people off the investigation panel (who were appointed by the opposition party no less) who disagree with the majority opinion is quite reprehensible.  How can you claim legitimacy in the findings of a report when all minority opinions are expelled and vehemently discredited.  Shin Sang-chul's credentials were good enough to get him on the panel in the first place, why would the Defense Ministry just decide he was not enough of an authority to contribute his opinion only after they heard it and it was contrary to what they wanted it to be.  

What if he had agreed with the findings that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship?  Would they still have apologized to him and kicked him off the panel for having "limited expertise"?  Of course not.  This incident alone discredits all the efforts of the entire panel and it was handled atrociously.  It gives the entire process the feeling of artificial due process and puppet panel experts.
Two South Korean-born U.S. academics have joined the chorus of skepticism, holding a news conference this month in Tokyo to voice their suspicions about the "smoking gun:" a piece of torpedo propeller with a handwritten mark in blue ink reading "No. 1" in Korean.
"You could put that mark on an iPhone and claim it was manufactured in North Korea," scoffed one of the academics, Seunghun Lee, a professor of physics at the University of Virginia.
Lee called the discovery of the propeller fragment five days before the government's news conference suspicious. The salvaged part had more corrosion than would have been expected after just 50 days in the water, yet the blue writing was surprisingly clear, he said.
"The government is lying when they said this was found underwater. I think this is something that was pulled out of a warehouse of old materials to show to the press," Lee said.
Another point concerning timing, but the marking itself is just very strange and raises many questions.  I found a picture of it from here.

Many questions are raised just by glancing at this "conclusive evidence".  Why is it that the fact that "no 1" written on the side of it implicates North Korea at all?  Anyone could have wrote that, including the Chinese, the Russians, the South Koreans, or the United States.  Additionally the entire marking is pristine.  This torpedo fragment survived an enormous blast, scorching high temperatures, and weeks underwater... yet the magic marker ink casually wrote in the side of it went untouched... not likely.

The LA Times article did not mention this, but when the Defense Ministry showed this "smoking gun" and held a press conference, the team presenting displayed the wrong torpedo diagram during their presentation.  The diagram that was supposed to be presented was of a CHT-02D torpedo (the one presented as the the torpedo that sank the Cheonan).  The thirty foot long poster display that was shown during the presentation was a model PT-97W... pretty sloppy work and the official explanation was just a "mix-up by a staff member while preparing for the presentation."
South Korean politicians say they've been left in the dark about the investigation.
"We asked for very basic information: interviews with surviving sailors, communication records, the reason the ship was out there," said Choi Moon-soon, an assemblyman with the Democratic Party.
The legislature also has not been allowed to see the full report by the investigative committee, only a five-page synopsis.
"I don't know why they haven't released the report. They are trying to cover up small inconsistencies, and that has cost them credibility," said Kim Chul-woo, a former Defense Ministry official who is now an analyst with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government think tank.
Indeed... why bother commissioning experts to a panel to file a report if it is to never be released?  That seems very odd to say the least.  Only allowing for a five-page synopsis to be released means that it was edited down and summarized.  Who edited it down?  Who had the ultimate authority to release the final five pages of information that was supposed to convince the world of North Korea's guilt?  

Once again, this whole process screamed of pre-determined bias in favor of North Korean guilt.  Which leads to a central argument in any conspiracy... if they are actually guilty, why is the South Korean government being so secretive about the whole process?  What other minority opinions or inconsistencies exist in the final report and why are they being kept from the public if North Korea is so obviously guilty?
A military oversight body, the Board of Inspection and Audit, has accused senior naval officers of lying and concealing information.
"Military officers deliberately left out or distorted key information in their report to senior officials and the public because they wanted to avoid being held to account for being unprepared," an official of the inspection board was quoted as telling the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
The Cheonan, a 1,200-ton corvette, sank the night of March 26 about 12 miles off North Korea. The first report issued by Yonhap, the official South Korean news agency, said the ship had been struck by a torpedo, but soon afterward the story changed to say the ship sank after being grounded on a reef.
The military repeated that version for days. The audit board found that sailors on a nearby vessel, the Sokcho, who fired off 35 shots with a 76-millimeter cannon around the time of the sinking, were instructed to say they'd been shooting at a flock of birds, even though at first they had said they'd seen a suspected submarine on radar.
On April 2, as Defense Minister Kim Tae-young was testifying before the National Assembly, a cameraman shooting over his right shoulder managed to capture an image of a handwritten note from the president's office instructing him not to talk about North Korean submarines.
Such inconsistencies and reversals have fueled the suspicions of government critics. U.S. officials, however, say the panel's conclusion is irrefutable.
I remember the first couple days after the sinking there was a lot of confusion in the media and no coherent message or explanation from the government.  It appears that the military wanted to blame it on a torpedo attack right away, but the government held them back.  Perhaps if they waited to attribute blame once they provided proof (like the magic marker serial number?), then the world would be more likely to accept it?  The hours and days after the attack fuels conspiracies because the government and the military gave conflicting stories.

It also seems obvious that career military officers would lie about the events of that day to protect their reputations.  Nobody wants to be blamed for this or to have been accused of being negligent or unprepared.  However, if people have been falsifying information and giving misleading testimony, has the government bothered to sort it out and correct the testimony, even if it contradicts the official story of North Korea's guilt?  Also doubtful...

This whole incident might go no farther than the ship hit a reef and sank, and they want to blame an enemy so that the soldiers who died did so protecting their country, not due to a navigational error.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, denies involvement in the sinking and calls the accusation against it a fabrication.
South Koreans themselves appear to be confused: Polls show that more than 20% of the public doesn't believe North Korea sank the Cheonan.
Wi Sung-lac, South Korea's top envoy for North Korean affairs, says the criticism from within has made it difficult to get China and Russia on board to punish Pyongyang for the attack.
"They say, 'But even in your own country, many people don't believe the result,' " Wi said.
That is a whopping one-in-five South Koreans not believing that North Korea is responsible.  If the government thinks those numbers will decrease on their own and they can continue to stonewall these conspiracy theories, they are mistaken.  

If you want to hear some REALLY out there conspiracy theories, Russian Today Television seems to think that the Cheonan was sank by the United States to change public opinion in Japan to keep a military base on Okinawa.  Wow, that is a good one...

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