Hands off Korea! The sinking of the Cheonan

Independent investigation shows that the sinking of the Cheonan was most likely a case of ‘friendly fire’, but it’s now being used as a pretext for further hostility towards the DPRK.

On Friday 26 March, a south Korean navy vessel, the Cheonan, split into two and sank. At the time, the vessel was 8 miles off the coast of the DPRK and 150 miles from the south Korean mainland. However, it was very close to the island of Baengnyeong, which, while clearly part of north Korea geographically, is in fact held by south Korea, having been bartered during the 1953 armistice talks in exchange for some land, greater in area, south of the 38th parallel to be incorporated into the DPRK.

As a result, the DPRK does recognise south Korea’s control over the island, although it is, because of its proximity to the northern mainland, used as a major base for US forces to spy on the north.

The cause of the sinking has not yet been established, and all kinds of theories abound. What is interesting, however, is that the initial reaction of both the majority of the south Korean authorities as well as of US imperialism was to deny that the DPRK had anything to do with it. Thus the Financial Times reported on 29 March:

Officials initially feared the 104-man corvette, the Cheonan, could have been torpedoed by north Korea but are now playing down that theory, saying there were no unusual manoeuvres in the nuclear-armed North.” (‘Poor weather hampers Korean sea rescue’ by Christian Oliver)

Six weeks later, howvere, all the imperialist media are stating it as established fact that the Cheonan was sunk by a DPRK torpedo, much to the outrage of the DPRK, which has at all times denied any involvement whatever in the incident.

Thus the Economist, “On 15 May a ship dredging the site of the attack on a south Korean warship in March that killed 46 seamen made a spectacular find: propellers, motors and a steering section that international investigators say ‘perfectly match’ those of a CHT-02D torpedo that north Korea sells abroad. What’s more, the blue marking was similar to one on a previously captured north Korean torpedo. This was as close to a smoking gun as the south Koreans could have hoped to find.” (‘Their number is up’, 20 May 2010)

While all the reactionaries are loudly singing in chorus about this “perfect match”, repeating the phrase endlessly with a frenzy reminiscent of gym muzak, there are, it seems, enormous disparities between the torpedo that has been paraded to the world and the type of torpedo the DPRK is alleged to have fired.

Photographs of the two were reproduced next to each other by Scott Creighton in an article entitled ‘The sinking of the Cheonan – we are being lied to’ posted on the internet on 24 May 2010. He pointed to several major divergences:

There are four clear differences in the design of these weapons and one is, without a doubt, the key to proving these are not the same.” These include “major differences in the design of the hub of the propellers”, which is larger in the torpedo displayed than in the Korean model.

The actual shape of the propellers is very different. You can see a notch in the diagram [of the Korean torpedo] … that doesn’t exist in the actual evidence propeller … The overall shape of the blades are vastly different as well, both the front and the rear propeller sets.

All of this might be explained away by suggesting that these propellers were switched out. Though it might be possible, remember that these are finely tuned and designed systems; one just can’t switch these hub designs ‘willy nilly’ like one would on their John-Boat. But, that aside, though it may be possible to have put different kinds of propellers on this fish, it is certainly NOT a ‘perfect match’.

Now, the last point proves they are not the same torpedo

As you can plainly see, the stabilisers (or propulsion system?) in the diagram [of the Korean torpedo] are clearly shown IN FRONT of the separation plate as it is lined up in the display with the evidence below. However, the torpedo [displayed by the imperialists] … houses that same stabiliser (or propulsion system) BEHIND the separation plate (separating the body and the tail section of the torpedo). 

[u]This is a major difference that cannot be explained by saying it was some kind of after-market modification. This is part of a key design of the workings of these weapons and cannot have been changed. This difference clearly indicates these are different weapons altogether.[/u]

There are other differences that have been pointed out to this researcher; ‘Jan’ noticed that the axle shape is tapered on the evidence and straight on the diagram. A good point. There are probably others as well (I noticed a difference in the shape of the ‘fin’ in the guidance section in the back as well … clearly there is no way to say these are a ‘perfect match’).

It is no wonder the ‘investigators’ chose not to sign their work.

Scott Creighton concluded that, from the shape of the torpedo, it is likely that it was in fact produced in Germany. Furthermore, Jung Sung-ki in the Korea Times protested that the torpedo parts put on display showed every sign of having been corroding in the water for several months!

Unfortunately, the investigation of the matter is, and remains, entirely in the hands of US imperialism, its puppets in the Republic of Korea (south Korea or RoK) and one or two other avowed enemies of the DPRK, and therefore the results of this ‘investigation’ are simply going to be what is relatively most expedient for US imperialism to ‘discover’.

US imperialism’s ‘national’ interests are best served by maintaining its military presence in south Korea as part of its strategy of encircling China. To ‘justify’ its presence, however, it needs to maintain tension between north and south Korea in the teeth of the desire of the vast majority of Korean people, both from the north and from the south, to reunite their country.

Even important elements of the south Korean big bourgeoisie are inclined to favour the reunification of Korea under the DPRK proposals for a two-system confederacy. This has happened because south Korean big business suffered utter humiliation at the time of the far eastern economic collapse of 1997, with enterprises that were their pride and joy being bought up at bargain basement prices by western imperialist monopolies – often simply for the purpose of shutting down the competition.

It was in these circumstances that the former south Korean president Kim Dae Jung was able to engage in his ‘sunshine policy’ to bring about closer links between north and south. In light of this, it is more than ever important for US imperialism to reignite fear of the DPRK among the big bourgeoisie of the south and that section of the masses under their influence. The sinking of the Cheonan is being used as fuel for that particular faltering flame.

Doubts about blaming the DPRK

So how comes it that now we are expected to believe that a torpedo made with Chinese and Russian parts has been found, and which we are supposed to believe could only have come from the DPRK?

As has been mentioned, US imperialism is always on the lookout for ways of cranking up tension on the Korean peninsula, though for the moment it would no doubt prefer that this did not actually escalate into war. Entirely on cue, the RoK government has announced that it has no intention of ‘counterattacking’. Instead, the proposal is to ratchet up the sanctions imposed on the DPRK with the aim of causing further misery to millions of innocent people, collective punishment being as natural to imperialism as breathing – never mind that it is illegal, genocidal and grossly abusive of human rights – and constraining the DPRK’s economic development.

However, it is also the case that the sinking of the Cheonan has been causing a great furore within south Korea itself, since the families of the young men who lost their lives in the incident have been prominent in denouncing the government for sending their sons out in ships that were, according to those who had to sail in them, entirely unseaworthy. As the Financial Times reported:

Still, after two full days in bitterly cold water, the focus is increasingly shifting to furious families, disconsolate with grief, who are venting their rage against the government of Lee Myung-bak, the president. Tearful parents, citing their sons’ complaints, argued the ship was unseaworthy and accused the government of being uncommunicative …

The loss of servicemen’s lives is a highly inflammatory issue in a country where military service is still obligatory.” (Op cit)

By deflecting blame onto the DPRK, the south Korean government is clearly attempting to escape its own responsibility – this being particularly important in view of the fact that local elections are coming up at the beginning of June. Those who currently hold the reins of government can only expect to win the election if they can clear themselves of charges of neglect of the interests of south Korean servicemen while at the same time garnering support for their puppet policy of subordinating the interests of the Korean people to those of the mighty US.

More importantly, however, the US does not want to lose its military foothold on the Korean peninsula. One can just imagine the uproar that would ensue if it turned out – as seems quite possible – that it was a US torpedo that sank the Cheonan!

Unanswered questions

The long-suffering people of south Korea, only too well accustomed to their government’s prevarications, were from the start dubious about any suggestion that the north Koreans had been involved in the incident:

Thus Kim Myong Chol wrote in the Asia Times:

There are four important points that make it clear that a north Korean submarine did not sink the south Korean corvette.

Fact 1: North Korean submarines are not stealthy enough to penetrate heavily guarded south Korean waters at night and remain undetected by the highly touted anti-submarine warfare units of the American and south Korean forces. A north Korean submarine would be unable to outmanoeuvre an awesome array of high-tech Aegis warships, identify the corvette Cheonan and then slice it in two with a torpedo before escaping unscathed, leaving no trace of its identity.

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.

Fact 2: The disaster took place precisely in the waters where what the Pentagon has called ‘one of the world’s largest simulated exercises’ was underway. This war exercise, known as ‘Key Resolve/Foal Eagle’ did not end on 18 March as was reported but actually ran from 18 March to 30 April.

Fact 3: The Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercise on the West Sea near the Northern Limit Line (NLL) was aimed at keeping a more watchful eye on north Korea as well as training for the destruction of weapons of mass destruction in the North. It involved scores of shiny, ultra-modern US and south Korean warships equipped with the latest technology.

Among the fleet were 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.

The four surface ships are the most important assets of the two navies, and have multi-mission platforms capable of conducting various tasks, such as anti-submarine warfare. There is every likelihood that they were supported by nuclear-powered US submarines and a south Korean ‘Type 214’ submarine that uses AIP technology.

The sinking of the Cheonan has made headlines around the world. If indeed it was a US accident, it is an embarrassing indictment of the accuracy of the expensive weapons systems of the US, the world’s leading arms exporter. It has also cost the Americans credibility as the South’s superpower guardian. Ironically, this has made north Korean-made weapons more attractive on the international market.

The south Koreans and the Americans charging the north Koreans with the sinking of the naval vessel in south Korean waters only highlights the poor performance of their expensive Aegis warships, as well as the futility of the US-south Korean joint war games and the US military presence in Korea.

Fact 4: Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said on 30 March that he doubted there was north Korean involvement in the sinking: ‘Obviously the full investigation needs to go forward. But to my knowledge, there’s no reason to believe or to be concerned that that may have been the cause.’

General Walter Sharp, US Forces Korea (USFK) commander, also saw no link between north Korea and the sinking. In a 6 April press conference, he said: ‘We, as Combined Forces Command and the RoK [Republic of Korea] Joint Chief of Staff, watch north Korea very closely every single day of the year and we continue to do that right now. And again, as this has been said, we see no unusual activity at this time.” (‘Pyongyang sees US role in Cheonan sinking’, 5 May 2010)

Of course, we know that the DPRK’s military is technologically advanced and it has to be admitted that it is conceivable – even if not very likely – that it has found a way of circumventing even the most sophisticated of US military technology. However, the improbability of this is compounded by some unexplained activity on the part of the US and RoK authorities that indicate that there was probably another vessel involved in the incident, and that this involvement is being concealed.

Buoys marking the areas being targeted for rescue work/investigation have been set down in three places. One is where the Cheonan ’s bow has sunk, another is four miles away where its stern has sunk, and then there is a third one which is some distance away from both.

The third buoy was the one closest to land. A Japanese investigative journalist, Tanaka Sanai, has drawn attention to this third buoy, which is where, he claims, most of the salvage work was done, even though no part of the Cheonan was to be found in that area.

He has alleged that a large submerged object was found there that appeared to be a sunken submarine, pointing out that “ The search and recovery of the Cheonan was given to a civilian company and the command of the operation was in the hands of a Korean barge. The search at the third buoy was conducted by a special RoK UDT-SEAL team and the latest RoK lightweight aircraft carrier, the Dokdo, served as the command centre. What can be assumed from this disparity is that the US and RoK military prioritised the search for the American submarine at the third buoy over the search and recovery of the Cheonan. ” (See www.japanfocus.org/-Tanaka-Sakai/3361 )

Sanai speculated that the submarine in question was the USS Columbia , which was very late in returning to its base in Hawaii after Operation Foal Eagle. Since the article was written, the submarine has been reported to have finally turned up, but of course it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that its lateness was due to its requiring repairs and/or the wiping clean of any telltale evidence.

Given the proximity of the third buoy to the first and second buoys marking the situation of the bow and stern of the Cheonan respectively, the question of the Cheonan being blown up in an incident of ‘friendly fire’ can certainly not be discounted. Tanaka suggests it is possible that the Cheonan was unaware of the presence of a US submarine in the area and could have fired on it in the belief it was a north Korean vessel, prompting by way of retaliation a torpedo through its middle that would blow the ship’s bow and stern in opposite directions.

This theory must be at least as likely as the theory that heavy seas and currents carried one part of the Cheonan in one direction and the other part in a diametrically opposite direction.

Of course, such speculations are ridiculed by the imperialist media, if they mention them at all, as ‘conspiracy theories’. It is always ‘conspiracy’ to challenge the imperialist version of events and/or to suggest that our friendly, honest and open imperialist powers would stoop to falsifying evidence.

To make wild and absurd allegations against socialist countries or any oppressed country that is trying to defend its economy against imperialist depredations, on the other hand, is considered responsible journalism, even where there is a total absence of evidence to support such allegations.

It is the DPRK who must be believed

A number of ‘smoking guns’ lead unfailingly to the conclusion that it is the DPRK which must be believed in this debacle. These include the original response of the US and RoK authorities denying that it could have been the DPRK behind the sinking; the delay in publicising the supposed discovery of markings on some torpedo case allegedly found at the scene; the unexplained existence of the third buoy at the salvage site, and the special attention paid to it that was denied to the remains at the other two buoys; the failure to mention the Foal Eagle naval exercises that were taking place in the region at the time; and the failure to invite relatively disinterested parties such as China or Russia to participate in or monitor the investigations.

The other point is that it makes no sense that the DPRK would torpedo this ship and then deny having done so. What would be the point? If it had decided to torpedo the ship in protest, for example, at the provocative nature of the Foal Eagle military exercises, then it would have said so. If, on the other hand, it was anxious to avoid further sanctions, then it would not have decided to torpedo the ship – as indeed it did not.

One has only to ask the question cui bono ? (who benefits?) to realise that the DPRK will certainly not have torpedoed the Cheonan . On the contrary, it is US imperialism and its south Korean puppets who certainly do benefit from concealing their responsibility for the accident, and who moreover have a consistent policy of seeking to raise tensions on the Korean peninsula, contrary to the DPRK’s consistent policy of seeking to broker peaceful reunification and cooperation with the south.

The anti-war movement in Britain should give its full solidarity to the DPRK and demand that the United States and south Korea cease all their provocations and threats against the country.

Hands off Korea!