Professors dispute report on sinking of South Korean ship

Lee Seung-Hun, left, a University of Virginia physics professor, discusses with a reporter in Tokyo on Friday his controversial findings that contradict the official report blaming North Korea for sinking a South Korean warship in March.
Charlie Reed/Stars and Stripe

TOKYO — Torpedo fragments may have helped convince the international community that North Korea was responsible for sinking a South Korea patrol ship, but some experts remain skeptical about whether North Korea was responsible and whether the South Korean government was truthful in its investigation of the attack.

A team of investigators — led by South Korea and including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Sweden — concluded in May that a North Korean torpedo caused a shock wave that ripped the Cheonan in half, killing 46 crew members and escalating tensions between Pyongyang and much of the international community.

However, in recent weeks, some have questioned aspects of the investigation — from how much gunpowder was found to why more survivors of the March 26 blast have not spoken publicly.

Among the skeptics are two American university professors, who said Friday that the official South Korean report blaming a North Korean torpedo was not only flawed but likely contained fabricated evidence.

“The ship just does not show signs of an outside explosion of a torpedo,” said Suh Jae-Jung, associate professor in international politics at Johns Hopkins University.

He and Lee Seung-Hun, a physics professor at the University of Virginia, told reporters Friday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan that much of the data and evidence presented in the report defies scientific explanation and is at best inconclusive.

Damage patterns on the ship are inconsistent with a shock wave, said Suh, who has written editorials in the South Korean press questioning the investigation. And the analysis of chemical compounds found on the ship and the recovered torpedo propeller does not prove an explosion occurred, as indicated in the report, Lee said.

“The data they presented cannot be explained scientifically,” said Lee, who said he recreated many of the chemical reactions documented in the report in his laboratory.

The data “was fabricated” to link the chemicals to an explosive reaction, he said.

Perhaps the most straightforward facts Lee and Suh offered involved the North Korean “No. 1” on the torpedo propeller that some have called the smoking gun against Pyongyang in the investigation. Not only should the ink-written mark have burned off during an explosion as did the heat-resistant paint on the propeller, but anyone could have written it, they contended. Lee and Suh said they sent their findings to the U.N. in mid-June, asking that the investigation be reopened.

International investigators and the South Korean government fell short of their “political and moral responsibilities” when they released a “faulty report … that has elements of being a fabrication,” Suh said.

The Ministry of National Defense did not respond Friday to repeated requests for information about the accuracy of the investigation findings.

Baek Seung-joo, director of the Center for Security and Strategy at the state-affiliated Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said the government’s mistake was not acknowledging the difficulty of finding a smoking gun — conclusive evidence in a tricky case that would leave no doubt North Korea sank the Cheonan. However, he said, he is certain North Korea is responsible for the attack, although it was possible the investigation team made some mistakes during the investigation process but not in its conclusion.

“It is impossible to create a lie and call it the truth when so many experts are part of the investigative team, let alone that the South Korean government has really no reason to distort the truth,” he said.

Baek said he believes that more than half of South Koreans don’t believe a North Korean torpedo was responsible for the sinking, and one-third don’t believe the investigation team’s findings.

He blames their skepticism on the timing of the investigation team’s initial report, which was released about two weeks before national elections. Many also felt that South Korea relied too much on a single piece of evidence — the torpedo’s propeller with “No. 1” inscribed in Korean characters.

David Garretson, a South Korea-based professor at the University of Maryland University College, said a U.N. Security Council approval of a measure condemning the attack — expected on Friday — would show that South Korea’s investigation results are “pretty solid” and have wide international acceptance.

While Garretson thinks North Korea is responsible for the sinking, he agreed that some findings of the investigation raised questions — for him, why North Korea would have left writing on the torpedo.

“You would think that the North Koreans wouldn’t put anything on it where you could footprint them or catch them,” he said.

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