South Korea elections update: Widely viewed as a referendum on President Lee’s hardline policies towards North Korea, his handling of the Cheonan investigation in particular, and general mid-term performance, the ruling Grand National Party suffered major setbacks winning only 6 of 16 major gubernatorial and mayoral races while losing many key local elections in major cities and provinces across the country. Commenting on the elections, which drew the largest voter turnout in 15 years (54.5%), the leader of the major opposition Democratic Party, Chung Se-kyun, said that President Lee Myung-bak should “abandon his confrontational policy on North Korea and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”
Urging China to support punitive actions against North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean naval war ship, the Cheonan, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implored China last week to read a 400 page report concluding that a North Korean midget submarine torpedoed the Cheonan on March 26, 2010 in the West Sea, killing 46 sailors. Yet the South Korean government has failed to release the full 400 page report to the National Assembly and has sought to silence dissenting opinions. “If a report provided to a country overseas is not presented to the National Assembly, this demonstrates an unbelievable disregard for the legislature and people of South Korea,” decried a Hankyoreh editorial, May 28, 2010.
A former member of the Cheonan investigation team, Shin Sang-cheol, who challenged the team’s findings, was questioned by the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s office, May 28, 2010, for spreading “groundless rumors.” Shin, who does not believe that the Cheonan was torpedoed, told prosecutor’s that the incident was “an accident and that the South had tampered with evidence to blame the North,” according to the Joong Ahn Daily, May 29, 2010. Earlier Park Sun-won, Secretary of National Security under former President Roh Moo-hyun, came under investigation for alleging that the government was concealing information about the incident.
Conducted by a joint military and civilian team with support teams from the U.S., Britain, Australia, and Sweden, the probe concluded that a bubble jet caused by a non-contact explosion of a North Korean homing torpedo carrying 200 — 300 kg explosives, detonating 6 to 9 meters below the surface and 3 meters to the left of the gas turbine room, caused the Cheonan to split in half and sink. For evidence investigators relied heavily upon the remains of the propulsion mechanism of a torpedo, dredged up in the vicinity of the sinking, which they claimed matches “perfectly” the blueprint of a torpedo North Korea manufactures for sale. Moreover the torpedo bears the marking, “#1,” in Korean characters which investigators allege is consistent with markings found on a North Korean torpedo previously obtained.
But the air of secrecy enveloping the evidence, and the effort to silence dissent has left the South Korean public divided over the team’s conclusions. Although a recent poll indicates that 70% of the population accepts the government’s conclusions, only half of those polled in the age group 20 to 40 accept the findings and of those with college educations, only one third. South Korea’s main opposition parties and numerous civic organizations and religious leaders assert that the veracity of the findings, distributed May 20, 2010 in an unsigned 10 page summary, cannot be verified without a full accounting of the investigation and evidence, and that in any case the incident has been inappropriately politicized by the administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to bolster the standings of the ruling Grand National Party in the June 2nd regional elections.
Criticisms of the summary, “Investigation Result on the Sinking of ROKs Cheonan,” stem in part from an absence of detailed accounts of the incident by the 58 surviving crew members including whether or not they witnessed a huge pillar of water and experienced injuries consistent with a torpedo explosion. Furthermore, investigators surmised that a North Korean midget sub must have infiltrated the area but presented no new evidence discrediting initial reports by the ROK military that no North Korean subs or torpedo launchings were detected on the night of the incident. Moreover the report failed to address the presence and activities of South Korean and U.S. war ships participating in the “Foal Eagle” war games in the area, reports that a South Korean diver, Han Joo-ho, may have died while attempting a rescue mission on a second vessel in the area, suspicion that the Korean language marking (#1) on the recovered torpedo, which may have just as easily been written by a South Korean, was fabricated, and concerns that the investigation was conducted primarily by the South Korean military and South Korea’s allies without participation of China or North Korea.
Calling the South Korean report a “fabrication” North Korea vehemently denies playing any role in the incident and has offered repeatedly to send its own team to review the evidence. South Korea has rejected the North’s proposals. Russia has reserved the right to conduct its own review of the evidence and has sent a team of investigators to Seoul. China, after participating in a summit meeting in Seoul with leaders of South Korea and Japan last weekend has yet to endorse the Cheonan investigation findings and has proposed a four party probe including South Korea, North Korea, the U.S. and China, according to the Korea Times, May 30, 2010. In the meantime China continues to urge all parties to remain calm, forgoing any actions to escalate tensions on the peninsula.
To be sure, dissenting opinions, suspicions and alternative theories of the sinking of the Cheonan may be unfounded as the government contends. But most troublesome is the lack of transparency with which the Lee Myung-bak administration, with U.S. support, has decided upon a course of punitive measures against North Korea which could lead to more tragedy. Also disturbing is the complete absence of discussion of the wisdom of conducting U.S.-South Korea joint war games in the disputed waters of the West Sea, the scene of frequent naval clashes between the North and South.
The U.S. and South Korea regard the “Northern Limit Line” (NNL) as the territorial boundary separating North and South Korea in the West Sea, which is frequented by North and South Korean fishing boats. However, it was drawn unilaterally by the United Nations Command after the signing of the Korean War Armistice, July 27, 1953, to restrain the South Korean navy from attacking North Korea. South Korea had boycotted the signing of the armistice. The North has never agreed to the NLL, arguing that the boundary should be moved further south – hence the oft used description “disputed waters,” where deadly naval clashes occurred in 1999, 2002 and last Fall.
So fraught with danger is the West Sea that when the leaders of North and South Korea met in their summit meeting of October, 2007, they addressed the need to arrive at mutually agreeable terms for the peaceful use of the waters by establishing a “special peace and cooperation zone.” However, upon assuming office in 2008, President Lee adopted a hard line approach in dealing with North Korea and today the West Sea is a scene of intensified naval drills and anti-submarine bombing involving South Korean and U.S. forces. South Korea and the U.S., among other punitive measures, are also pursuing a tightening of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, a move which the latter has declared it will regard as an act of war. Presently, all normal channels of communications between the north and south are severed.
The NNL has no legal basis in the Korean War Armistice Agreement, and the West Sea has been the most likely site for outbreaks of fighting with loss of life. All joint U.S.-South Korea military activity in the West Sea should cease immediately, the Obama administration should support the South Korean public’s call for transparency in vetting their government’s findings on the Cheonan incident, urge the Lee Myung-bak administration to invite North Korea as well as China to conduct independent assessments of the evidence, and support the 2007 North-South Summit agreement to demilitarize the West Sea.
Americans and Koreans in the North and South should join in honoring the 46 sailors of the Cheonan who lost their lives, not with retaliation, not with more death, but by creating a “peace and cooperation zone” in the West Sea, restoring communications, and working together to end to all hostilities on the Korean peninsula stemming from the Korean War.