South Korea in the line of friendly fire
By Kim Myong Chol
[Editor's note: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has ordered his
million-strong armed forces to "combat readiness", according to a broadcast by
the North Korean military. On Monday, South Korea announced it was suspending
almost all trade links with North Korea in retaliation for the torpedoing of
its warship Cheonan with the loss of 46 lives. The South has also banned
all North Korean shipping from its waters and vowed to resume sensitive
propaganda broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone that were suspended in
"We do not hope for war but if South Korea, with the US and Japan on its back,
tries to attack us, Kim Jong-il has ordered us to finish the task of
unification left undone during the ... (Korean) war (in 1953)," the military
The South Korea-led multinational investigation team of the March
26 night sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan held a news
conference in Seoul on May 20 to unveil its finalized forensic report with
false findings pointing a finger at North Korea.
The report has all the hallmarks of rushing to invoke an all-too-familiar North
Korean bogeyman in a bid to cover up the US role in a friendly fire incident.
The May 20 report is the only visible part of the iceberg-like "proof" that the
South Korean people and the world public have all been lied to.
It is safe to state that the May 20 presentation is another lie of the century,
as was the February 5, 2003, speech by the then-US secretary of state Colin
Powell at the United Nations.
As the Powell speech paved the way for the invasion of Iraq by the US-led
"coalition of the willing", the May 20 report carries strong risks of trading
charges quickly escalating into a nuclear war between two nuclear powers, the
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the United States.
CBS News reported on May 19 a significant Iraq War-like split among
multi-national investigators: "The US, Britain and Australia - all of which
helped in the investigation - are all prepared to back up the findings. Only
Sweden, which also sent investigators, is a reluctant partner in blaming the
The US, the United Kingdom and Australia were members of the "coalition of the
willing", whereas Sweden deeply opposed the invasion of Iraq. A major producer
of AIP submarines, Sweden has vast expertise on shallow-water submarine
The Financial Times reported on May 19 on the skeptical reaction of the South
Nevertheless, despite what appears to be the bloodiest
North Korean attack for more than two decades, there has been no outpouring of
public rage against Pyongyang. The loss of the warship has also exposed South
Koreans' mistrust of whatever the government says and a historic sense of
fraternity with the North, feelings that can override strategic dangers.
The government seems to be hiding something. If not, why did it take so long to
announce the conclusion?' said Bae Sung-hoon, a 37-year-old office worker. Many
ordinary South Koreans say that their government is merely seeking a convenient
scapegoat for what was a mistake on the part of the South's navy, or what was a
"friendly fire" incident involving the US military.
A South Korean sister paper of the Washington Times, Segye Ilbo, on March 29
quoted a military source as saying: "The radar of the CIC on the corvette Cheonan
is capable of easily detecting any torpedo within any radius of 20-30
kilometers but on that fateful day it detected no sign of a torpedo attack or
naval firing by North Korea.
Japan's conservative mass
circulation daily Yomiuri Shimbun on March 21 quoted South Korean security
experts as commenting, "Material evidence does not directly tally with the act
of firing a torpedo. Absent is a perfect demonstration of the presence of a
North Korean submarine and its launch of a torpedo. North Korea will likely
counter-argue that South Koreans acquired a North Korean torpedo in a third
country and launched it."
Too clumsy to be a compelling case
The discovery of a given suspect's weapon at the scene of crime does not
establish his or her guilt because it could have been deliberately placed there
by the true culprit to impute responsibility.
To establish the culpability of a suspect it is essential to satisfy at least
three requirements. The first is demonstration of his or her presence at the
time of the crime; corroboration of his or her actual use of the deadly weapon
in question in perpetrating the crime; determination of how and why the suspect
was able to get away.
As the three salient facts indicate, the final findings and accompanying pieces
of evidence are so crudely crafted that they neither place North Korea at the
scene of the tragedy nor establish North Korea's guilt. The reason is obvious:
the Americans and the South Koreans failed to study Perry Mason and Sherlock
Firstly, the multi-national investigation did four things:
It identified that the cause of the sinking of the South Korean ship was a
It disclosed that a few small North Korean submarines were out of their home
port a couple of days before and after the ship disaster.
It produced fragments of what was purported to be a torpedo with markings in
Korean scrip retrieved from the seabed.
It speculated that the torpedo was fired by a North Korean submarine.
The investigation team did not prove at all the presence of a North Korean
submarine at the scene of the sinking at the time of one of the world's
greatest military exercises, as illustrated by telltale failures:
Failure to identify the name of a suspect small, primitive museum piece-like
North Korean submarine and the names of its crew. A Toyota vehicle abandoned at
the scene of a terrorist attack does not mean that either Japan or Toyota Motor
Corporation was responsible for the action.
Failure to discuss the manner in which the suspected slow-moving North Korean
submarine managed to penetrate South Korean waters, operate in shallow waters
(depth of less than 30 meters) without being detected by the state-of-art radar
and sonar-mounted US and South Korean ships and get away scot-free after the
corvette sank in an explosion with a column of water so high (about 100
meters), so flashy and so noisy that a sentry on the shore of the Island of
Baekryon witnessed it.
Failure to cite one of the world's greatest war games that was going on at the
scene. Yonhap reported on March 26 from Pyongtaek City on the west coast of
South Korea that "The Foal/Eagle US-South Korean joint exercise is currently
underway in the West Sea as US Aegis ships arrived May 25 at the Pyongtaek
Naval Base where the Second Fleet is headquartered".
Failure to discuss the presence in the war games on the fateful March 26 night
of four Aegis ships, the USS Shiloh (CG-67), a 9,600-ton Ticonderoga
class cruiser, the USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54), a 6,800-ton Arleigh Burke
class guided-missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, a 9,200-ton Arleigh
Burke class guided-missile destroyer and Sejong the Great, a 8,500-ton
South Korean guided-missile destroyer, most probably supported by US nuclear
and South Korean German Type 209 and 212 AIP submarines.
Failure to refer to the German explosives found at the wreckage of the corvette
despite an initial announcement. The Korea Times reported on May 7, "The
multinational investigation team is also closely looking into the possibility
that a North Korean submarine fired a German-made torpedo used both by the
South Korean and American navies in an attempt to dodge its responsibility."
The Blue House (presidential house) was dismayed at the multinational
investigators' May 7 announcement that they had detected German RDX in the
wreckage and pressured the Defense Ministry not to accept the findings, as
Yonhap reported two days later.
Failure to explain the failure to find and retrieve two harpoon anti-ship
missiles and a torpedo tube lost when the corvette sank, while succeeding in
recovering the motor and propeller of the spent torpedo.
The investigation team produced what it termed "conclusive evidence": the
eye-catching hand-written Korean markings "ilbon" or "No 1" in English
found on the propulsion section of the used torpedo allegedly recovered from
the sea bed.
This turns out to be most inconclusive and counter-productive, calling into
serious question the credibility of the findings. The use of "ilbon" in
Korean script - not in Chinese characters - may look like North Korean writing,
which is distinctly different from what is written in South Korea.
But native North Koreans use "ilho" for the English "No 1". "Ilbon"
is what South Koreans would use, although North Korean street addresses more
often than often not do contain numerals like "ilbon".
A likely theory for this blunder is the sense on the part of the investigators
that there was an absence of hard evidence to impress a skeptical South Korean
and world audience.
Disaster overrides key US policy objectives
A key policy objective of United States President Barack Obama and South Korean
President Lee Myung-bak is to bring North Korea back to the six-party talks to
persuade it to give up its nuclear arsenal and prevent it from exporting
They should be well informed that the May 20 forensic report carries four
serious risks in its fallout.
Risk No1: The most effective high-profile global cost-free
advertisement of the high performance of inexpensive weapons produced in North
The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 21 commented: "Weapons experts observe, 'North
Korean torpedoes are not less reliable than those deployed by Western
countries.' For North Korea, which earns foreign currency by exporting weapons,
the sinking of the corvette is a good opportunity to demonstrate the
performance of its domestically produced torpedoes, increasing their value as
an export item."
According to the SIPRI Yearbook 2005 (Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute), North Korea exported 3,250 anti-tank missiles and 1,250
surface-to-air missiles(SAMs) to Russia between 1992 and 2005, and 45 Scud-C
missiles (range 500km) to Yemen between 2001 and 2002.
Risk No 2: Embarrassing proof that the much-touted expensive and
sophisticated US military hardware is a white elephant and that the US offer of
a security guarantee to South Korea does not make any sense.
The world knows that air and sea supremacy and the presence of high-tech
weapons are useless against small rag-tag insurgent forces in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Their one-dollar improvised explosive devices play havoc with
eight-wheel armored combat vehicles, high mobility multipurpose wheeled
vehicles (Humvees) and mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles.
The net outcome will be reduced international demand for American weapons.
Risk No 3: Gone once and for all is the only small opportunity
for North Korea to agree to return to the table for nuclear talks and renounce
its nuclear arsenal.
Risk No 4: A sharpening of tensions on the Korean Peninsula has
brought about a very explosive situation in which an armed clash may ignite hot
war at any moment. The US is fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The
Obama administration appears to be opting for another war.
The Korean People's Army has been put on combat readiness. Supreme Commander
Kim Jong-il is one click away from turning Seoul, Tokyo and New York into a sea
of fire with a fleet of nuclear-tipped North Korean intercontinental ballistic
Why have the two presidents put on the back burner their shared top policy
priority objectives? What consideration has overridden them?
The answer is the urgent need to keep secret from the public that the tragic
sinking of the corvette was a result of inadvertent friendly fire by a US
nuclear submarine or an Aegis ship or any other naval ship. (See
Pyongyang sees US role in Cheonan sinking Asia Times Online, May 5,
Public knowledge of US friendly fire would generate a destructive bubble-jet
effect of launching waves of anti-Americanism and attendant objections to US
bases in South Korea, Japan and the rest of Asia, landing Obama and Lee in
trouble. The latter would see his ruling party soundly defeated in June's
nationwide gubernatorial and municipal elections.
There is no other plausible explanation.
Kim Myong Chol is author of a number of books and papers in Korean,
Japanese and English on North Korea, including Kim Jong-il's Strategy
for Reunification. He has a PhD from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's
Academy of Social Sciences and is often called an "unofficial" spokesman of Kim
Jong-il and North Korea.