Jun. 10 – While the United States and a host of other Western nations have taken the South Korean report on the sinking of the Cheonan at face value, China and Russia appear to remain unconvinced of North Korea’s culpability in the affair.
China continues to protest North Korea’s innocence, even following a heated meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who visited Beijing in late May. In China May 24-25 for the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue, Clinton warned Chinese officials that China could put itself in a “dangerous position” if it refuses to accept North Korea’s role in the sinking of the Cheonan, an apparent reference to the South Korean joint civilian-military investigatory report.
The report, which was released May 20, concluded that a North Korean torpedo was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan on March 26. The investigative group was comprised of “25 experts from 10 top Korean export agencies, 22 military experts, three experts recommended by the National Assembly, and 24 foreign experts constituting four support teams from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Sweden.”
In what appears to be an effort by the South Korean’s to “win over” as many of the UN Security Council members as they can prior to any presentation in front of the United Nations, Russian investigators were invited last week to examine the wreckage. Russian submarine and torpedo specialists received detailed briefings on the results of the investigation, visited South Korea’s 2nd Navy Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek where the wreckage of the Cheonan is preserved, and inspected the waters near the island of Baekryeong where the warship sank.
According to the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, the Russian’s concluded that North Korea cannot with absolute certainty, be held responsible for the sinking which also caused the death of 46 sailors. Citing the Russian news agency Interfax, the paper said that the team examined the hull of Cheonan and other evidence and concluded it was insufficient to implicate North Korea
The issue is also being taken up in South Korea, where the independent daily Hankyoreh raised questions over the findings that a security breach in South Korean waters led to a North Korean submarine launching a torpedo. One of the major concerns the paper raised was with the torpedo fragment that was presented as conclusive evidence:
There are also some questions regarding the North Korean torpedo fragment, which was presented as conclusive evidence. First, some experts stated that the marking 1 beon, No. 1, presented as key evidence that it was a North Korean torpedo, is different from typical North Korean markings.
“North Korea does not frequently use the term beon,” said one North Korea expert. “Instead, they use the term ho, as in Daepodong 1-ho, Gangnam 1-ho, etc.”
In fact, a North Korean training torpedo obtained by the South Korean military seven years ago was marked “4 ho.” In light of the fact that the beon discovered on the torpedo fragment and the ho found on the training torpedo are different, the investigation team could not have conducted a precise handwriting analysis. The team said it would consider a plan to determine the similarity through ink analysis, but it is uncertain whether a clear answer will result.
In addition to western media coverage, foreign policy and Asia focused think tanks have also been following the event closely. The Jamestown Foundation looked into possible motives for a North Korean attack, stating that early media reports suggested that North Korean officials were privately touting the attack as a retaliatory victory. “According to one South Korean report, a North Korean Worker’s Party Secretary tacitly confirmed North Korean responsibility for the attack to an audience of fellow Party members, proclaiming, ‘The Korean People’s Army has recently taken merciless revenge on its enemies. After our retaliation, South Korea has been so afraid of our military strength.’ While it is difficult to confirm the truth of either the remark or the report, such comments point to a possible North Korean motive for the attack on the Cheonan.”
Publically, Pyongyang continues to reject any connection to the sinking of the Cheonan and has charged Seoul with forging evidence to promote its case.
“The key to resolving the case lies in that the DPRK has an opportunity to verify and confirm the investigation result on a scientific and objective basis,” Sin Son Ho, DPRK’s permanent representative to the UN, said in a message sent Tuesday to Security Council chairman Claude Heller, the Korean Central News Agency reported.
South Korea has rejected all requests by North Korea to send its own investigators.
South Korea formally referred the issue to the UN Security Council on Saturday and members of the South Korean investigation unit left for New York last night to explain their findings to the 15 members of the Security Council.
“We sent the team at the request of the Security Council chairman,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The briefing will also be attended by foreign experts who were involved in the investigation.”
It is unclear if South Korea will seek additional sanctions against its neighbor. UN sanctions remain in place against North Korea following its two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.