SEOUL - The sinking of the Cheonan - or rather the result of the
explosion that sank the South Korean corvette on March 26 - is proving a tough
sell for South Korea's conservative leaders.
So many theories are floating around about how it happened that it's beginning
to seem possible nothing happened at all, that the ship never exploded, that
the two great pieces they hauled up from the Yellow Sea were all cardboard
fabrications like North Korean satellites. And the torpedo they dredged up? In
industrialized society, couldn't someone have twisted and painted that thing to
look ugly and bent and rusted in any body shop?
As for the Hangul script that said "No 1" on the propeller housing, forget it -
it might as well have been the handiwork of "investigators" wielding big fat
There is, to be sure, the matter of the 46 sailors who died in the blast, the
bodies of 40 of them said to have been found in the stern, but then what would
the leaders of South Korea care about sacrificing young lives if their demise
would justify another "aggression" against the North?
The views of the crackpots are proliferating in South Korea so wildly that most
people think the international investigation was flawed, even if they are
prepared to believe what would have appeared irrefutable, that a North Korean
torpedo did blow up the ship. Rather than denounce North Korea for such a
dastardly "act of war", as their leaders have been doing, the critics are
denouncing President Lee Myung-bak for upsetting North Korea's Kim Jong-il by
cutting off trade, most aid and other blessings routinely bestowed on the North
in the decade of the "Sunshine" policy before Lee took office in February 2008.
The torrent of skepticism turned into a tidal wave this week when a majority of
voters turned against the ruling conservative Grand National Party in local
elections in which 4,000 jobs were up for grabs.
It would be difficult to say which party got the most individual votes in such
a profusion of balloting, but, in the races that counted most, the opposition
came out comfortably ahead. Candidates of the Democratic Party won seven of the
16 races for governor and mayor of the country's nine provinces and seven large
independent cities, while conservative candidates won just six of the races.
The others went to independents and candidates of minor parties, most of them
critical of the government.
The election would have been a near total disaster had the conservative mayor
of Seoul, Oh Se-hoon, not managed to hold onto his job by a margin of less than
1% of the votes over Han Myeong-sook, a woman who served as prime minister
under the late president Roh Moo-hyun.
Han, known for her leftist views, skillfully played on doubts about the
investigation during the campaign but did not exactly debunk its results.
Rather, she asked rhetorically whether people were "afraid of war" and said she
knew how to "solve the problem".
That question set the tone of the campaign in which the overriding question of
Democratic candidates, when it came to the Cheonan, was, "Do you want
war or do you want peace." There were definitely other issues, notably Lee's
close relationships with the chaebol, or conglomerates, that dominate
the economy, his advocacy of breaks for big business and his idea of a vast but
unpopular scheme for expanding Korea's four major rivers as arteries for
ever-more commerce and industry.
Somehow Lee and his advisers believed his staunch stand on the Cheonan would
greatly enhance his sagging popularity. Polls and editorials told him the
episode would solidify support among the doubters. Seoul's mayor Oh was often
mentioned as a likely candidate in the next presidential election in December
2012 to succeed Lee, barred by Korea's "democracy constitution" from seeking a
The question posed by Han and other Democratic candidates not only trumped the
government's accusations against North Korea but also left open the issue of
who really sunk the Cheonan.
Questions abound: who were the experts from the half dozen foreign countries
who joined the investigation; were they ordered to remain silent and not give
their versions; why were all, excluding one from Sweden, from countries allied
with the South in the Korean War that ended in 1953?
And then, people are asking, why did the Cheonan go down so soon after
annual US and South Korean joint military exercises had ended? Wasn't there an
American ship in the area, capable of laying down the latest brand of mine,
with a team of divers aboard? What about the American and South Korean
electronic surveillance facilities on nearby Byeongnyeong Island, one of five
taken back by the South Koreans from the North Koreans in the Korean War?
The questions raise plot theories to which there is no way to respond since the
answers come in the form of ever-more questions and "evidence" drawn from
studies and reports that often turn out to have been so skewed as not to be
The questions raised here, however, pale beside some of the theories emanating
from US commentators who have taken recently to comparing the Cheonan episode
with the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of August 1964, which gave US president
Lyndon Baines Johnson the rationale for getting the US Congress to pass the
Tonkin Gulf resolution and plunging into the Vietnam War.
The only real similarity is that North Vietnamese patrol boats did fire
torpedoes at an American destroyer, all of which missed before US fighter
planes scored some hits on the patrol boats. Two days later, American
destroyers fired on what a misreading of radar and sonar facilities led
commanders to believe were more North Vietnamese boats, but were actually
None of which would keep a Washington commentator named Wayne Madsen from
asking if the destruction of the Cheonan was a provocation comparable to
the Gulf of Tonkin. Beyond that, Madsen mooted what may be the nuttiest theory
of all, telling a Russian TV program that "the sinking of the warship was
really intended to convince Japan not to move US forces off Okinawa as well as
divert the attention of Americans from the dire economic situation at home".
Think about it. Would the Americans or Japanese or Koreans have been so anxious
for American troops to stay on Okinawa as to float a mine capable of lifting a
1,200 vessel up in the air, splitting it in two, sinking it in five minutes and
killing nearly half the crew? For that matter, would they have been able to?
Certainly, suggested Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times, writing
in the New America Media - described as "a more inclusive journalism". With
that he reported a second-hand report of the US Navy's diving-support ship Salvor
lingering in Korean waters "laying bottom mines" that hide in the lower depths,
waiting to explode with enough force to lift up a ship and sink it.
Shimatsu, also said to be an environmental consultant, was sure the torpedo
shown off at the South Korean Defense Ministry would have "shattered on
impact". And he offered the word of a "North Korean intelligence analyst" that
the North "did not possess an underwater craft stealthy enough to slip past the
advanced sonar and audio arrays around Byeongnyeong Island".
All of which had Stephen Gowans, a Canadian activist, concluding that the
sinking of the Cheonan had "all the markings of another Gulf of Tonkin
incident" in which "the aggressor is accusing the intended victim of an
unprovoked attack to justify a policy of aggression under the pretext of
Fine thinking, but South Korea's conservative government last weekend called
off plans to fire back by dropping leaflets from balloons over the North or
begin mega-loudspeaker barrages across the Demilitarized Zone.
It seemed the North's threat to target the speakers with live fire was enough
to convince Lee to pull back. South Koreans are not going to support an attack
on North Korea, as the latest round of elections made clear, and the
conservative government has no notion of risking more clashes if it can help
it. It's having enough trouble convincing Koreans of what happened, much less
inspiring enough patriotic fervor to march off to a second Korean war.
None of which will tamp down the questions about an episode that's already
inspired never-ending conspiracy theories that promise to be flying around at
least as long as those surrounding the attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.